At 40th reunion, former players and execs reflect on Major Indoor Soccer League
They traveled to Las Vegas in early July from lands as distant as Liberia to celebrate a particularly American version of the world’s most popular team sport — soccer played in hockey arenas with only six players per side kicking a ball that was colored fire-engine red for the sake of TV. It was a multi-day commemoration of the Major Indoor Soccer League, almost 41 years after Pete Rose, part-owner of the Cincinnati Kids, kicked the ceremonial ball before the league’s first game at the Nassau Coliseum against the New York Arrows.
The MISL lasted from 1978 until 1992, and between the demise of the original (outdoor) North American Soccer League in 1984 and the launch of Major League Soccer in 1996, it was the country’s top professional soccer league. During its lifesapan it included 32 franchises in 25 cities. Among its successes was the St. Louis Steamers, whose average attendance of 12,000 per game outdrew the NHL’s St. Louis Blues for four consecutive seasons in the early 1980s.
Most of the reunion group, which numbered between 40 and 50, hadn’t seen one another in decades. It was mostly players, including Juli Veee, who, like many, played outdoors in the NASL and originally took the MISL as an offseason job. Now, he’s an artist. Finnish-born Kai Haaskivi, another indoor and outdoor veteran, was also in Vegas. He played every MISL season. Adolphus “Doc” Lawson, who played the third-most games in the history of the MISL, was the one who traveled from his native Liberia. There were also front office executives and even a few die-hard MISL “superfans.”
“We all get older — except for me,” said Ed Tepper, an octogenarian who started the league with Earl Foreman and served as deputy commissioner.
MISL was an industry launching pad for some, including Cleveland Cavaliers CEO Len Komoroski and Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke.
For NBC Sports Philadelphia broadcaster Marc Zumoff, the MISL’s Philadelphia Fever provided his first TV sports job. “It was a huge step up,’’ said Zumoff, who parlayed that into becoming the voice of the 76ers for more than 25 years. “It was a small dot in sports history, but being with them [at the reunion], you appreciated the dedication and the difficulty. You were trying to sell indoor soccer, when most fans didn’t appreciate the outdoor version.”
Because of that, the MISL strategy was to be three-ring circus entertainment. At the time, MISL game intros — with the house darkened, along with spotlights and smoke — were a revelation. Now, such intros are routine.
“MISL pioneered that in sports and never got the credit it deserved,” said Fred Cohen, who worked for two teams at the league from 1978-84. While his day job was serving as director of promotions for the Fever and then vice president of marketing for the Chicago Horizon, he also donned the mascot suit for both clubs. These days he works with cloth of a different sort as the president of Championship Billiards, which sells more billiard and card table cloth than all competitors combined.
Of course, memories weren’t the only thing to be kicked around at the reunion. Around 20 people took part in an indoor game at the Longevity Sports Center, and while no one recalls the score, they all remembered the paramount rule: “No running.’’
Nonetheless, “Just watching those guys still play was a real highlight,” said Zumoff.
Inevitably, conversation in Vegas turned to what went wrong, which was primarily limited television distribution and bad ownership. Certainly, MISL holdovers are envious of what now constitutes a respectable TV rating, not to mention the multitude of distribution avenues afforded by the internet.
“Our presentation was always good, and our games were exciting,” said Tepper. “We did a lot of things right, but when you are looking hard for investors, one thing we didn’t realize is that just because someone can buy a franchise doesn’t mean they had the right experience. Good operators are so hard to find — that was true then and it’s still true.”
Former Horizon team president Doug Verb organized the reunion and is hoping to use portions as material for an MISL documentary.
“Lots of people couldn’t make it because it was July 4th,” he said. “They all said to put them down for the next one. So I gave everyone an invitation to our 80th.”
Terry Lefton can be reached at email@example.com.