The Major Indoor Soccer League was the first successful effort to introduce indoor soccer as a professional sport in the United States. The outdoor North American Soccer League (NASL) began to experiment with indoor exhibitions and tournaments in the mid-1970’s, but stopped short of forming a full-fledged winter indoor league. But the NASL’s tentative experiments with the indoor game captured the imaginations of several entrepreneurs.
Former NASL execs Richard Ragone and Norm Sutherland announced the formation of the Major Soccer League in August 1975, but that effort made it no further than the press release stage. (Ragone and Sutherland would later re-appear and owner/operators in the MISL). Harlem Globetrotters exec Jerry Saperstein and serial sports league founder Dennis Murphy (ABA, WHA, WTT and too many others to name) tried to get their Super Soccer League off the ground in 1978. It was a rare failure to launch for Murphy, who managed to start at least five pro leagues during the 1970’s. The NASL itself would finally organize a half-hearted indoor season in 1979, but by that time they were second to the party.
The winners of the indoor derby were veteran sports execs Earl Foreman and Ed Tepper. Foreman, an attorney, was the former owner of the Washington Caps and Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association. Tepper owned the Philadelphia Wings of the National Lacrosse League – a very popular team in a short-lived league that few had heard of – and served a brief stint as President of the NASL’s Philadelphia Atoms club. Foreman and Tepper announced their Major Indoor Soccer League on September 30, 1978 and were playing soccer less than three months later. The league debuted in December 1978 with clubs playing in major hockey arenas in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Houston, New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
The MISL expanded rapidly in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. At the MISL’s peak in 1984, the league boasted 14 clubs and average attendance across the league of just under 9,000 fans per game. Sports Illustrated covered the league periodically. In a handful of cities indoor soccer was incredibly popular for a brief moment in the 1980’s. The Cleveland Force routinely drew much larger crowds than the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers at the suburban Richfield Coliseum. In Kansas City, the tremendous success of the MISL’s Comets at Kemper Arena helped to drive the NBA’s Kansas City Kings out of town in 1985. Edward DeBartolo Sr. owned both the MISL’s Pittsburgh Spirit and NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. For a short time the Spirit appeared to be the hotter ticket in Pittsburgh – until the Penguins drafted Mario Lemieux in 1984. After the NASL folded in 1984, there was no nationwide outdoor soccer league in the United States of any significance for the rest of the 1980’s. Indoor soccer – less than a decade old as a sport – became the highest rung of the professional soccer ladder in the United States from 1985 to 1992.
Despite the MISL’s pockets of success in the Midwest, the league had a lot of problems. The MISL bounced from cable network to cable network (USA, ESPN, PRIME) never managing to land the breakthrough TV deal that might give the league national recognition and financial stability. The roster of clubs fluctuated wildly from season to season with bankruptcies and relocations. The MISL’s repeated failures to gain a foothold in New York were especially troublesome. Between 1982 and 1987, the MISL had four franchises fail in the New York/Northern New Jersey market including two – the New York Cosmos and New York Express – who embarrassed the league by folding in mid-season. In the summer of 1988, the MISL lost four long-running clubs, including two of its former model franchises – the St. Louis Steamers and the Cleveland Force.
League founder Earl Foreman, who stepped down as league Commissioner in 1985, returned to the post in 1989 to attempt to reverse the league’s decline. Foreman and the remaining owners were unable to attract new investors for expansion or find a light at the end of the tunnel for the existing clubs. The original MISL folded in July 1992.
The MISL brand name has since been revived on two occasions by unrelated indoor soccer leagues.
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