By L.E. Eisenmenger - BOSTON, MA (Dec 2, 2009) USSoccerPlayers -- Peter Wilt likes challenges and it’s not hard to see the challenge in making a professional indoor soccer into a viable business. Wilt left the Chicago Red Stars to become president and CEO of the Milwaukee Wave, one of the five teams in the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL).
In 2008 MISL briefly changed its approximately 30 year-old name to the National Indoor Soccer League to accommodate the legalities of the breakaway Xtreme Soccer League, which folded after one season and included the Wave. But prior to the 2009 season, the league switched the name back to the original MISL and the Wave are on board.
Wilt describes the MISL as being at a “dangerous” level with only five teams, the fewest in many years. At it's height in the 1980's, the original MISL supported as many as 14 teams. More recently, the revamped MISL was an eight-to-ten team circuit situated on the East Coast and the Midwest. Expansion added West Coast teams and one in Mexico, but the league was losing older franchises.
The mission now is to add more solid franchises. The four somewhat northern teams, the Wave, Rockford Rampage, Baltimore Blast and Philadelphia Kixx, are geographically grouped in pairs, which reduce travel expenses, and the fifth, La RaZa is an outpost in Monterrey, Mexico. Historically, it's been the Blast that have been the league's stable franchise.
Now the league is once again in start-up mode, needing to remind fans they're playing after two years of multiple leagues and rumors of closure. The remaining clubs struggle with revenue and are now focusing on marketing and branding, which is where Wilt comes in.
Wilt has a track record of building franchises like the Chicago Fire and Red Stars, as well as Minnesota Thunder, Chicago Power, and earlier the Wave again. He has lived in Milwaukee for 30 years and is familiar with what it will take to return the Wave to importance locally.
“In the Fire’s case, I learned how to connect with fans, to listen to them and figure out how to deliver what they’re trying to get out of the sport,” Wilt said. “With the Red Stars, I learned how to get more for less. Our budgets were much lower with the Red Stars than they were with the Fire, but they’re pretty comparable to what the Wave budgets are.”
His marketing challenge is to get fans to care about the team, the players, and the sport, and not just attend games because of gimmicks or discounts.
“The best way is through interaction between the players and the fans. If fans get to know the players personally they’ll connect with them, identify with them and they’re going to want to follow them both in person in the arena, away on telecast or webcast, in newspapers, online. Social media is an important means to do that. It’s cost-efficient and it’s invasive. Through twitter, facebook, and email blasts we can get our players personalities in front of our fans and connect to them emotionally and build on that one fan at a time.”
Ultimately winning games trumps winning personalities and Wilt says the MISL draws as many players from Europe, Brazil, and overseas as it does locally. Kevin Healey, president and GM of the Baltimore Blast, puts that number at 25%. The scouting is done internally. Some players move on to MLS, but more often they come from that direction. Some play in the USL in the outdoor season and others work in the league soccer camps in the summer, which in Baltimore's case can attract 3,000 campers a year. Players at the high end of the pay scale make $4k to $5k a month in season, but MISL is not single entity. Instead, it’s a traditional franchise system, so there’s no salary cap and pay varies club-to-club.
Each game consists of four 15-minute quarters with free substitution. Goals are worth two points and goals shot from beyond the 45 arc around the goal are worth three points. The Wave began their 2009 season by posting a 15-0 win over La RaZa, their fourth shut-out in history, which isn’t a great case for parity, another concern.
Healey, who has worked with the Blast for 13 years, says last year’s attendance averaged 7,300. That's a high number, especially for a season spent in a reconfigured league with a new name. Then again, Baltimore has spent a decade at the top of the attendance table in whatever league they're in.
The Blast front office keeps the name visible in the Baltimore area by grassroots advertising, underwriting people to come to the games, and advertising through print media, radio, and TV. The camps create fans where the kids get to know players and they follow their games.
All the games are available via the Internet and different teams work out plans for local TV. The owners want to grow the league beyond the five teams before going back on national TV again. The last version of the MISL had a deal for a Friday game with Fox Soccer Channel, who also showed the final.
Mike Conway, the assistant GM of the Baltimore Blast, says there are two more teams, possibly three in the works for next year or the year after. Investors aren’t required to build an arena, but they do face a problem familiar to outdoor teams. Indoor soccer as a participation sport has taken off, particularly in Northern areas.
“We are kind of our worst enemy,” said Conway. “Back in the days when the Blast were drawing 12,000, 10,000 a game here in Baltimore there was only one indoor facility and the kids weren’t playing on weekends. Now, there are probably 20 [facilities] within 30 square miles of Baltimore and on nights when we’re playing, they’re playing as well.”
Still, Conway feels there’s a future here. “We’re making money here in Baltimore and we have a good business model to do that.”
As always for indoor soccer, the trick is making that viable in markets across the country.