Here Comes Futsal: Can Indoor Soccer Make it in America Again?

With investments from NBA owners, the PFL is trying to bring futsal—the world's most popular version of indoor soccer—to American arenas.

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May 5 2016, 1:00pm

SRDJAN SUKI, EPA

Janusz Michallik may have been a fresh-faced teenager, but he remembers it well: the noise, the lights, the packed stadiums, the fuss. When he was 18, his family moved to the United States from Poland, where his father had played for the national soccer team. Janusz himself had become a pro at age 17 for Gwardia Warszawa, but the defender accompanied his family across the Atlantic and, in 1984, joined the Cleveland Force of the Major Indoor Soccer League.

That same year, the old North American Soccer League would cease operations; by the time it shut down, the league had shrunk from 24 to nine teams, and average attendance had sagged to 10,759, from a peak of 14,440. The Force, meanwhile, was bringing in around 13,000 fans per game across the 1983-84 and 1984-85 seasons.

Indoor soccer was a thing in America back then.

"In those days, the Major Indoor Soccer League was extremely successful," says Michallik, who now works as a soccer analyst for several TV channels and Sirius XM FC. The indoor soccer leagues played with walls and glass, forever keeping the ball in bounds. "It was tremendously entertaining. It was hockey, but on a soccer court."

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But within a few years, the indoor leagues went the way out of their outdoor counterparts and crumbled. It's hard to say why, exactly. Maybe national sporting tastes changed. Perhaps it was that, like the NASL, the indoor leagues seem to have paid salaries they couldn't actually afford. Michallik recalls contracts ranging well into six figures and suspects some players may have cleared seven figures. In the Rust Belt in the 1980s, these were princely sums.

Michallik went on to a successful outdoor career in the old Wild West days of the post-NASL, pre-Major League Soccer pro game. Once he got his U.S. citizenship, he represented the national team 44 times, but fell short of the 1994 World Cup team. Then he played five more times for the national team in futsal, the indoor soccer game that doesn't have boarding but sidelines.

Indoor soccer became a marginal sport as MLS arrived on the scene and cornered the live market, while the TV landscape was dominated by the foreign game.

In early February, however, it was revealed that tech mogul, Dallas Mavericks owner, and Shark Tank dominator Mark Cuban had taken a principal ownership stake in something called the Professional Futsal League, which had made no splash at all upon its initial launch in January 2015. Also involved, according to the Dallas Morning News, were other well-heeled NBA owners like Mikhail Prokhorov and the Buss family—or at least they were looking into it, as were outdoor soccer powerhouses Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Boca Juniors, and Corinthians.

"When Mark Cuban decided to come aboard, that was our stamp of approval," says PFL commissioner Keith Tozer. "That was a guy that's obviously been very successful at any business venture that he's gotten into"—we'll just pretend Cyber Dust never happened—"and of course a lot of people were interested when Mark came onboard."

The PFL says it hopes to instigate a futsal revival, eschewing the American version of indoor soccer with boarding in favor of the global version of the game.

But if you accept, as you probably should, that the space the league is stepping into isn't all that different from indoor soccer to the consumer, the wreckage of failed leagues of yore is daunting. The indoor game has a long history stateside. Soccer historian Colin Jose traces it back to 1885, when an American and a Canadian team played a series of four outdoor and three indoor games in Newark, New Jersey. By a cursory count, at least six indoor leagues have gone bust since then. The North American Soccer League played inside, as well as outside, for a while before it went out of business. There was a Continental Indoor Soccer League, a National Professional Soccer League, and three iterations of the Major Indoor Soccer League, none of which lasted longer than 14 years.

Then there are the three still-active indoor leagues: the Major Arena Soccer League, the Western Indoor Soccer League, and the Premier Arena Soccer League. Major League Futsal is also currently in the process of starting up, and claims to have an affiliation with U.S. Soccer—something the PFL is trying to broker.

Tozer was the first player drafted by the MISL in 1978. After the Cincinnati Kids folded following his first season, he spent the next year in an outdoor league for a club actually called the Pennsylvania Stoners. He has been the U.S. national futsal team's head coach for nearly two decades. (After medaling at the first two FIFA Futsal World Cups in 1989 and 1992, the U.S. has won just two games on the world stage since.)

About 18 months ago, Tozer got a call from Donnie Nelson, the successful Dallas Mavericks general manager and president of basketball operations. He was thinking of buying an indoor team and Tozer had been running the MISL's Milwaukee Wave forever, in Nelson's hometown. Nelson hadn't heard of futsal. Tozer took his daughter to a few national team games, and that got the PFL ball rolling.

Tozer argues that playing futsal, versus indoor soccer, does differentiate his league from all those failed ventures of the past.

"The game of indoor with the boards is only played in the United States and in some places in Mexico," he says. "Futsal is the game of the world." It's regulated by FIFA, for what that's worth. And it has the aforementioned World Cup.

When the futsal is good. Photo by Srdjan Suki/EPA

But just because futsal is the world's game doesn't mean the sport is viable as a professional league—which is probably why the PFL has not just recruited NBA owners but designed its model expressly to accommodate them. Futsal can very easily be played on a NBA court. Since it will be a spring-to-fall league, the PFL will provide cheap programming for NBA arenas in the summer months, when their calendars are thin and any revenue is a bonus. The league projects that a 6,000-8,000 capacity range will be ideal, which equates to the bottom tier of most stadia.

"This product is tailor-made for an NBA owner," says Michael Hitchcock, the PFL's CEO. And there will be "quite a few" of them among the owners, which the league will announce in the coming months.

Tozer also confirmed that "franchises in the league are working on partnerships with European and South American clubs." The sale of the first 16 franchises is finalized, per Hitchcock, at $1 million buy-in apiece. He claims that, collectively, the PFL has "as good a portfolio of owners as any league in the U.S."

The league's expansion committee—which Cuban is on—has already begun strategizing for its second and third phases of expansion. For comparison, Major League Soccer kicked off with 10 teams in 1996—at a $5 million entry fee—and didn't begin expanding meaningfully until well into its second decade.

Speaking of MLS, wouldn't a summer futsal league with big ambitions and high-profile backers be a direct competitor with the 21-year-old outdoor league, which is finally creeping toward profitability? "I would imagine that if a franchise is in the same city as Major League Soccer, that they definitely would not schedule a game on the same day," Tozer says.

When you say "indoor soccer," all Mark Cuban hears is "profit." Photo by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

But Tozer and Hitchcock are bullish on the ability of indoor and outdoor soccer to coexist. "With the growth of the outdoor game, there's business opportunities for things that are authentic and real and connected to the world's most popular game. And futsal is the authentic indoor version of soccer," Hitchcock says. "Soccer has done a great job of building not just Major League Soccer but also the minor league system. Futsal is going to have its place as well. I see it as very complementary to one another."

In theory, this is true. Futsal can help create an environment that will help develop better American players, indoor and outdoor. In the many states where fields are unplayable in the winter, futsal offers a suitable, technique-driven alternative. Plenty of outdoor stars played futsal growing up, including Lionel Messi. It should be said, however, that boosters of the sport have conveniently labeled any kind of soccer played indoors as futsal, meaning, rather fortuitously, that every single major outdoor star has played it at some point.

Still, it certainly kickstarted Michallik's outdoor career. "Those are some of the best memories I have being in this country for 30 years," he says.

And top outdoor national teams tend to have robust youth futsal scenes in their countries. "It's the path to outdoor football, and inexpensive," Tozer says. "I joke that the U.S. has more futsal courts than most countries in the world. Every elementary, junior high and high school, college, university, and church—not only do they have one court, they have multiple courts." Any basketball or tennis court can be easily converted. Move the hoops or take out the poles, paint some lines, and set up some goals. Done.

But does it follow that this country can support two big-time leagues whose seasons overlap?

Hey, does the Arena Football League still exist?