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Charles Cuttone

CHARLES CUTONE

March 9, 2007
TURNING A CORNER?
MISL may be reaching stability

by Charles Cuttone
Executive Editor

The Major Indoor Soccer League, which has not even registered a blip on the national sports scene, might be turning a corner.

The league expands by two clubs for next season, and the new ownership groups look like they might be prepared to shake things up a bit.

Newark and Orlando will be joining the loop for the 2007-08 season, and if the league can retain its other six clubs, it will field eight teams for the first time in three seasons.

The Newark team is owned by Jeffrey Vanderbeek, owner of the National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils, marking the first time in nearly a decade the league has had cross ownership from one of the pro sports.

The as-yet unnamed team will play in the under-construction Prudential Center, along with the Devils, marking a reversal in a trend in the league to play in smaller, less “major league” buildings.

Newark’s expansion brethren, the Orlando Sharks, are taking a similar approach, by sharing the Amway Arena with the NBA’s Orlando Magic.

“If you are going to be the Major Indoor Soccer League” said team President Rich Bradley, “everything you do should be major league... where we play, our game presentation”

Bradley says the league has to turn the corner and “decide if it’s going to grow up.”

The Sharks have been working for more than a year at developing their market in Orlando, and even though they have yet to hire a head coach or sign a player, they are already a known commodity in the city, getting major press and TV coverage for their team name announcement.

In addition to the two new ownership groups, the league has taken a step toward establishing a national television presence by signing a multiyear agreement with VERSUS network, the fledging sports channel owned by Comcast.

Under the deal, the MISL is actually buying the time on the network, producing the telecasts and selling the advertising time.

The league had a couple of playoff games televised on ESPN2 in the past, but this is the first time regular season games are included in the package.

“National television is decidedly essential to the future growth of the MISL,” said Commissioner Steve Ryan in making the announcement of the deal with VERSUS.

Ryan also said the deal “vastly increases the exposure and potential reach of our made-for-television professional sport.”

While the league and the network are being cautious about ratings -- after all, even the NHL is barely visible on VERSUS -- both parties seem to think it’s a good deal to have the MISL on TV.

“Our hope is that we get more viewers for the league,” said Marc Fine, the Senior Vice President of Programming and Production for VERSUS. “Hopefully its a nice property in the long term.”

Certainly the MISL has to be hoping “in the long term” is the key phrase here.

The league has not had much stability in its franchise ranks over the last few years, losing Cleveland, St. Louis, San Diego and Monterrey while adding California and Detroit. Kansas City has sat out the last two seasons, but is expected to return next year, although the league has not confirmed that as yet.

The situation in California is anything but stable, with the team changing ownership after its first season, having its GM resign midway through this one, then shortly thereafter firing its coach.

Detroit appears to be off to a good start, both on the field and in the stands, announcing five straight sellouts, but the team plays in a 3,500 seat arena, and there were lots of empty seats evident in a recent telecast.

Chicago has had three up-and-down seasons in the league, but has signed a long term deal to play in the Sears Centre and has beefed up its management with experienced professionals.

With stable ownership here in Philadelphia, as well as in Baltimore and Milwaukee, it is quite possible the league has turned that corner. It just needs to remember that while TV may drive the revenues for many sports, fans in the stands came first.

   
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