By J Hutcherson - 1 June, 2001 (Internetsoccer) -- It’s easy to compare the old North American Soccer League with Major League Soccer, a mechanism for providing thousands of words for soccer writers across the country, myself included.
But until MLS adopts traditional ownership, starts shifting franchises, and has to watch as clubs go under, the real comparison is between the NASL and the North American Professional Soccer League, the game’s indoor version.
The NPSL has been around in one form or another since the mid-1980’s, when it was looking up at the highly successful Major Indoor Soccer League that was a direct rival to the NASL. The MISL was a popular league, selling out venues across the country and for a while just as popular as the National Basketball Association in some cities.
However, by the end of the 1980’s the league was in trouble, collapsing entirely after a couple of years of dwindling attendance and an impromptu name change to the Major Soccer League.
Three MISL teams survived, entering a league that had slowly built an audience in cities ignored or abandoned in the free-spending glory days of the MISL. Baltimore, Cleveland, and Wichita joined the NPSL for the 92/93 season, and two of the franchises enjoyed even more success on the artificial field and at the box office than they did in the MISL, while Wichita never really forgot where they had come from.
The Wings, a club that had experienced a seven-year run where selling out the 9,600-seat Kansas Coliseum for league games was normal, began to realize that audience simply wasn’t as interested as they were in the 1980’s. Attendance began to fade, other cities like Milwaukee had larger arenas that they were filling, and the city of Wichita began attracting other professional teams to a metropolitan area of around 500,000.
When I called the Wings front office, assistant coach Sammy Lang answered the phone. He was the only one there, running the team’s soccer camps even though for all practical purposes the Wichita Wings no longer exist.
Last Thursday the administrators, coaches, and players were told they were out of a job, with the owners of the oldest professional soccer franchise in the United States deciding they’d had enough of the low attendances and harsh economic realities of running an indoor soccer club.
As Coach Lang told me, the players aren’t there anymore, with a few exceptions opting for full-time jobs with Major League Soccer. What national media attention is given to soccer in America is devoted to the outdoor game.
It isn’t a new story, Edmonton failed earlier this year during the season and for all the talk of a new beginning for the North American Professional Soccer League, the signs aren’t that good.
The league has a new commissioner, Steve Ryan, who used to run the marketing wing of the National Hockey League and also promoted the bowling industry as president of Strike Ten with the hopes that the elusive television contract and marketing deals wait just around the corner.
The question is: how many teams will be there to benefit?
Baltimore, Cleveland, and Milwaukee are model franchises, attracting big crowds, professionally run with committed owners, but the rest of the league isn’t so stable. You can’t have a three-team league, and though Chicago is expected to join within the next two years, the NPSL still has no presence on the West Coast.
That’s the territory of the World Indoor Soccer League that made headlines at least in the world of soccer by having an English division. That didn’t last long, and currently the league has six teams in Texas, California, and Missouri drawing good crowds in cities like Dallas without the scoring gimmicks used by the NPSL.
A merger has been discussed, but the WISL will start its late summer/fall season as scheduled.
For all the talk, the problems that continue to plague the indoor game are still very much evident, and it will take something radical to get the league into the shape the owners and fans believe it deserves. A commitment to marketing, exploiting revenue sources like soccer camps, television, and sponsorships. We’ve seen and heard it all before, and the result is as predictable as it is disheartening.
As for Wichita, the last link to the heady days of the MISL and the NASL, the only remaining American team to actually play the Cosmos, albeit the indoor version, or play professionally in the 1970’s has passed into memory. The latest victim of the economic realities facing a marginal sport that once knew what it was to be major league and desperately wants to reestablish a variant of professional soccer in the United States.
Hopefully, Commissioner Ryan will be successful in reviving the club under new ownership in time for the 2001-2002 season. But barring new money and new interest, the demise of professional soccer in Wichita is the end of a story that began when soccer was the sport of the Eighties and the future of the American game both outdoors and indoors looked virtually limitless.
The history of American soccer isn’t very deep, none of the professional clubs have lasted very long, yet in Wichita the Wings survived longer than any NASL club or MISL club, the only active reminder of what many consider the greatest period of American soccer all but forgotten years before they played their last game.
At least indoors, Wichita carried the game, bridging the gap between the rise of the NASL and MISL, the collapse of both leagues, and the relative dark ages in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. A fine tradition for a club that never won a championship, and when the Soccer Hall of Fame finally opens its doors to clubs as well as players and builders, Wichita should be included.