Origins of the MISL
By Dave Litterer of The US Soccer History Archives, with supplemental materials by Steve Holroyd and Paul Reeths
The immediate roots of professional indoor soccer were eerily similar to those of the outdoor game. In 1967, when three separate groups of businessmen--egged on by stadium owners anxious to fill their grounds--saw a money making opportunity after the success of the 1966 World Cup. Now, in the wake of the NASL’s Pelé-driven success, three separate leagues--this time encouraged by arena owners seeking additional sources of revenue--announced that they would be forming professional indoor soccer leagues, all beginning play in 1978.
The first group was the immodestly titled Super Soccer League. This group, headed by Jerry Saperstein, son of Harlem Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein, came into existence partly out of the junior Saperstein’s inability to get a hockey franchise for South Florida. Saperstein eventually grouped with Mssrs. Ragone and Sutherland, and announced that the league would begin playing a season beginning in April 1978 and continuing through November.
The second group was the brainchild of Ed Tepper. Three years after viewing the NASL's Philadelphia Atoms victory over the Red Army of Moscow in an indoor exhibition, Tepper approached his friend, Washington attorney Earl Foreman. Foreman was no stranger to the soccer wars, having been an owner of the Washington franchise in the United Soccer Association and the North American Soccer League. Tepper brought a video tape of an indoor game played between another touring Russian team--Leningrad Zenit--and Tampa Bay Rowdies. Foreman was excited by what he saw, and agreed to form a league with Tepper. In October 1977, the two contacted various arena owners who (not surprisingly) liked the concept and provided the duo with the seed money that enabled them to locate prospective owners. By October 1977, the two announced that the Major Indoor Soccer League would operate a circuit, concentrating on East Coast and Midwest cities, to begin play in the winter of 1978-79. In November 1978, it announced that it would begin play with 6 teams--Philadelphia, New York, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Houston, and Cincinnati--playing a 24 game schedule from late December 1978 to mid-March of the following year.
Meanwhile, the North American Soccer League, seeing a golden opportunity slipping through its fingers, announced that it, too, would operate an indoor league through the winter of 1978-79, starting in December, with 18 of its 24 franchises participating. NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam stated that such a league was necessary to help Americans improve their level of play: "If [the U.S.] is to emerge as a world soccer power, provision must be made for players to have approximately 60 games a year to compete with the experience being gained by players overseas. Six-a-side soccer as a supplemental program is an ideal way to develop our young players." Indeed, all three leagues stated that their intention was to give American footballers a chance to develop their skills at a professional level. When the SSL was asked if it intended to raid the NASL for players since it was holding its indoor season concurrent with the older league’s outdoor season, Ragone responded, "we don’t need to go after players from the NASL. Instead, we will specialize in kids out of American colleges while importing a number of top players." Likewise, the MISL announced that, on its club’s 14 man rosters, a minimum of 10 would be American.
These altruistic pronouncements notwithstanding, the three leagues had bigger concerns to address, money and credibility being the two biggest factors. The MISL operated from the best position: it had secured solid ownership groups, and had also locked up most of the top arenas in the country, such as Philadelphia’s Spectrum, Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum, Houston’s Summit and Cleveland’s Richfield Coliseum. It also gained a significant coup in New York Arrows’ signing of American star Shep Messing, the goalkeeper on the 1977 NASL Champion New York Cosmos. The NASL, on the other hand, enjoyed name recognition and, in theory (as many outdoor stars were ambivalent about the indoor game), higher-quality players.
At first, however, it appeared that the SSL was going to be the king of the hill. It announced that it had secured a five year, $2.5 million dollar television contract from 20th Century Fox Television, calling for three SSL games to be televised in 1978, with the number increasing in future seasons. The Saperstein group’s inability to get its season started, after originally announcing an April 1978 start date, however, led to the league announcing that it would begin play in May, then June, then July and then November before finally holding off until April 1979. These delays placed this deal in serious jeopardy almost immediately after it was signed.
The SSL was unable to get its season started as planned because it could not stabilize its franchise situation. While the MISL was stable with 6 teams, the SSL fluctuated from the originally announced number of 16 to 12, then 8, then 7 when the Atlanta franchise backed out, then back to 8 when new owners were allegedly found for that group. Eight months from its projected April 1979 start date, the SSL announced that it planned to open with 12 teams in a two-division line-up. However, the line-up at the time of the announcement only included Washington Fever (owned by Ragone), Birmingham Bandits (owned by SSL co-founder Billy Lyons), Shreveport (headed by Cal Rockefeller), New York Fever, Atlanta, and South Florida (Miami). Even at the time of the announcement, though, only Washington, Birmingham and Shreveport actually existed. Other rumored franchises in New England, New Jersey, Toronto, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle simply never materialized. In the end, a lack of financial preparation killed the league in its cradle. The Super Soccer League never played a game.
The NASL, meanwhile, also ultimately held off on its plans to form an indoor league. While many owners wanted to wait and see how well the MISL did, they, too, were also unprepared to start an indoor circuit on such short notice. The net result was that, in December 1978, the Major Indoor Soccer League was the only indoor game in town.