Imagine if some upstart sport – a junk sport as some of the old cranks in the sporting press would call it – went into an big city arena next fall and outdrew the local NBA team. Not just outdrew the basketball club, but nearly doubled their average gate for each game and eventually drove them out of town. It’s inconceivable that a sport like indoor lacrosse or arena football could blindside a city like this today, but this is exactly what happened in Kansas City in the early 1980’s with the arrival of the Major Indoor Soccer League.
The MISL was three years old when Dr. David Schoenstadt arrived in Kansas City in the summer of 1981. Schoenstadt owned a sad sack two-year old franchise most recently known as the San Francisco Fog. The club had already failed in Michigan (as the Detroit Lightning) and the Bay Area, lasting only a single winter in each city. In Missouri, the Fog became the Kansas City Comets. They would split dates at the 16,000-seat Kemper Arena with the NBA’s Kansas City Kings.
Schoenstadt entrusted the management of the Comets to the young brothers Tracey and Tim Lieweke. Tracey was President, Tim General Manager and a third brother, Tod, ran the Comets’ community relations programs. The Liewekes promoted Comets games as all-around entertainment events, augmented by light shows, lasers and pyrotechnics. These production values are taken for granted today by NBA and NHL fans, but in the early 1980’s they were innovations still percolating upwards from leagues like the MISL (and often decried by old guard sportswriters of the era).
During the 1981-82 season, the Comets drew an announced average of 11,508 to the Kemper Arena for 22 home dates. This was 2nd best in the 12-team MISL and, more importantly, the Comets popularity dwarfed that of the Kansas City Kings, who averaged a paltry 6,644 fans that winter. Former Comets season ticket holder Brian Holland writes frequently about the Comets on his blog Holland’s Comet and compares Comets/Kings attendance for the four winters that the NBA and MISL went head-to-head in Kansas City from 1981 to 1985. It was no contest, with the Comets reaching their peak of popularity in their third season of 1983-84, averaging a near capacity 15,786 while selling out 15 of 24 home dates. According to Holland, the Comets even outdrew the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs head-to-head during one weekend in December 1983.
By 1985, the Kansas City Kings season ticket base had eroded to just 3,200 seats. In January, the Kings announced a relocation to Sacramento, California. Their departure was attributed by some, including former Kings Head Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, to simply being out-marketed by the Comets:
With the Kings gone, the Comets became the primary tenant at Kemper Arena for the first time in the winter of 1985-86 and gained a stranglehold on prime dates. Ironically, the fortunes of the Comets and the Major Indoor Soccer League had already started to decline. The Lieweke brothers left Kansas City in 1984 at the zenith of the team’s popularity. Younger brother Tim returned for two seasons as team President from 1986 to 1988, but by then the MISL was in contraction mode, as were the turnstile figures for the Comets. The league nearly folded in the summer of 1988 after four teams folded.
David Schoenstadt, the rumpled anesthesiologist who brought the Comets to Kansas City in 1981, sold the club to an unwieldy group of 23 local investors in September 1987. By the dawn of the 1990’s, announced attendance fell to an average of 7,103 per match, a decline or more than 50% from the club’s Reagan-era heyday. The Comets folded after ten seasons on July 1991. The MISL followed the Comets into the dustbin of history exactly one year later.
==Kansas City Comets Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
It’s been a weird year for an increasingly weird league. The AFL’s tag line this year was “Year of the Fan”, but “Year of the Scab” would have been more like it. The season was dominated by a protracted and disorganized labor dispute that saw players and owners squabbling publicly over the handful of pocket change left in the sport after the recession and a disastrous 2009 bankruptcy. Some (or all?) of the players may (or may not?) be represented by Ivan Soto, a mysterious financial adviser from Ohio who rails against ownership to his tiny army of 200 Twitter followers. Soto’s questionable tactics included persuading a single team – the Cleveland Gladiators – to strike on their own for one game, resulting in a forfeit that helped knock them out of the playoffs. Whoops.
Owners and league execs have seen and raised Soto’s buffoonery on several occasions, most majestically when Pittsburgh Power honcho Matt Shanerfired his entire team during dinner at Olive Garden and abandoned them in Florida a few hours before the first game of the season. Shaner’s theatrics drew more attention to the AFL than any other story in this Year of the Fan, including the league’s showpiece Arena Bowl XXV championship game, played before a comically inflated announced crowd of 13,648 in New Orleans two weeks ago.
The AFL promoted the 2012 season as the league’s 25th Anniversary, harkening back to the founding of the original Arena Football League in 1987. But that’s rather disingenuous. It’s kind of like saying you’ve seen Motley Crue in concert, when what you really mean is that you saw a tribute band called Shout At The Devil play in a South Carolina bowling alley. While the sport (and some of the intellectual property) is indeed a quarter century old, today’s Arena Football League is just three years old and boy is it different than what came before.
The original league (1987-2008) played for two decades and had quite a few problems of its own. Most fundamentally, it never solved the eternal revenue/expense problem faced by leagues that play as tenants in other people’s buildings. But these business model problems were hidden by a speculative bubble in expansion fees in the early 2000’s, a charismatic chief executive in C. David Baker, and a brief fling with the NFL, that saw investment pour into the AFL from deep-pocketed NFL owners like Arthur Blank, Pat Bowlen, Tom Benson and Jerry Jones. For a half decade or so, the money kept flowing and the creditors remained patient.
The bubble deflated for the original AFL in 2008 after three years without new expansion money. The NFL guys got out and never looked back. There was no Arena Football in 2009 as the league went bankrupt. This new league, launched in 2010, is primarily composed of the poorer owners from the old league and its former small-market minor league system. These guys scraped together $6.1 million bucks in late 2009 to purchase the old league’s IP rights at a bankruptcy auction. Many of the old team identities have been revived and the original league’s history has been reclaimed and packaged as if it were never interrupted. The only elements missing are the high quality players of the first league – driven away by salary reductions both draconian and inevitable – and the fans, who seem to detect the aura of shabbiness that envelops this new entity.
The question now is whether Arena Football is poised to go the way of indoor soccer, which was bigger than outdoor soccer (and more popular than the NBA in a few cities) in the 1980’s, but has now languished for more than a decade in state of complete and utter irrelevance. Kansas City may be the first domino to fall in a decisive autumn/winter for the “new” AFL. But more likely, the league will muddle through for many more years, chasing an elusive formula of smaller arenas, cheaper workers (both on field and off) and lowered expectations in a “Puppet Show and Spinal Tap” kind of way. There are several second tier football leagues out there trying to carve out a piece of market share – the new, retro-themed USFL, the zombie carcass of the United Football League – but the Arena Football League is the only one that has already fired the silver bullet that the others so obviously covet: partnership with the NFL. The AFL had that chance once. It didn’t work out and it’s probably never coming back. It’s hard to imagine what’s next to resuscitate this sport.