Sex, Soccer, and Videotape: The Fight to Keep a Dead League Alive

The MISL was once America's premier soccer league, but its mostly fallen on one dedicated fan to keep the league's rich history alive.

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Nov 26 2014, 1:10pm

"And then, from inside the great lighted ball, through the murk, come the players, one by one, garbed in neon citrus colors, all holding high red roses, which they will toss to lucky girls in the stands. There's a long pause from the BBC announcer. At last he speaks. 'Leeds versus Liverpool it is not' is what he says."

--"Show, Sex and Suburbs" by Frank Deford for Sports Illustrated, February 28, 1983

"I was just like, 'Oh man, this is awesome,'" says St. Louis native Tim Nichols, 35, remembering his first exposure to live professional soccer, the day he credits with making him a "super-fan" for the rest of his life. It was also the day that would lead Nichols to eventually fill his home with artifacts from perhaps the most bizarre yet forgotten league in the history of American soccer.

April 7, 1990--over a decade after Pele left the New York Cosmos and still four years before the United States would host the seminal 1994 World Cup--Nichols was 10 years old when his father brought him and his brothers to the St. Louis Arena to watch the St. Louis Storm play the Tacoma Stars in the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL).

Opened in 1929 by the National Dairy Show, closed in 1994 by the NHL's St. Louis Blues, and demolished in 1999, the St. Louis Arena hosted some of the largest crowds in the history of indoor soccer. In the early 1980s, when the St. Louis Steamers were the flagship franchise of the league, they drew about 17,000 fans per game.

However, by the time of Nichols' first game in 1990, the league was on its last legs. The Steamers folded after the 1987-1988 season and had been replaced by the Storm. Many of the theatrics that characterized those early years had faded. Nonetheless, indoor soccer was still indoor soccer, a sport once described by veteran MISL goalkeeper Bob Rigby as "a zoo, a circus [...] human pinball."

Only 17 seconds into the game against Tacoma, the Storm opened the scoring with a goal from Emil Dragicevic, who years before had made his professional debut at the age of 18 with Croatian powerhouse Dinamo Zagreb. Less than a minute later, the Storm scored again. This time it was Stan Terlecki, who would finish his career with 29 national team appearances for Poland. When the game finally ended 10-6 for St. Louis, Nichols was hooked.

Two years later, at the end of the 1991-1992 season, the league folded.

As Nichols grew older, his love for indoor soccer only strengthened, even as the professional version of the sport faded into obscurity. He heard the stories about the passion in St. Louis for the Steamers and he became obsessed with finding video of those games. He wrote to old soccer magazines and scoured the strange world of the late-1990s Internet, looking for leads on finding any MISL games on tape, but came up with nothing.

Finally, around 2001, he found a man in Portland, Oregon who had compiled a substantial collection of MISL game tapes. A few years later, that man sold his entire collection to Nichols, and Nichols all of a sudden found himself as a key figure within the underground community of MISL collectors.

"When I started doing this, I really had no idea that there would be that many people who were interested," says Nichols. "But there is."

There was a man in San Diego, former home of the MISL's Sockers, who would send Nichols a check for a couple of games, once a month, every month for a couple of years--almost a Netflix-like subscription service, except for obscure videos of random indoor soccer games from the 1980s.

As Nichols' collection grew, he swapped with and sold tapes to fellow MISL enthusiasts spread across five continents, from Kansas City to Norway and Brazil to Australia. He also tracked down former MISL players and coaches like Don Popovic, the former head coach of the Storm and other MISL teams, who had a couple hundred tapes in his possession that he allowed Nichols to copy. Many former players didn't have any of the tapes Nichols sought, but wanted some as well to remember their careers. So Nichols would trade them copies of his tapes to get original MISL game jerseys, balls, and other memorabilia.

Within the greater obsession of collecting all things MISL, he developed smaller sub-obsessions. He absolutely had to find the tapes of every MISL All Star Game. He found about half of them very quickly. The rest took years to dig up.

Today, Nichols estimates that in addition to those various other MISL artifacts in his collection, he has a total of about 500 MISL games on DVD, VHS, and even some original master tapes that he's had to convert--a difficult and expensive endeavor. According to the landing page of his website, which doesn't appear to have been updated since sometime in 2005, Nichols owns "THE LARGEST COLLECTION OF INDOOR SOCCER GAME DVDs IN THE WORLD!"

The MISL has no equivalent of Cooperstown or Canton. There are only these campy websites and impressive home collections curated by people like Nichols to protect and share the entire history of professional indoor soccer, as well as America's many other defunct professional sports leagues.

To appreciate the significance of saving that history, consider this: the MISL was the biggest soccer league in America in the 1980s. Though it struggled in major cities, it packed arenas throughout the Midwest and the Rust Belt, where teams frequently outdrew their NBA counterparts. Among the owners in the league at different times were Pete Rose, Stan Musial, and Jerry Buss. Portuguese legend Eusebio, one of the consensus 10 best players in the history of world soccer, finished his professional career in the MISL, playing in the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. It's also a league that employed many wildly innovative marketing gimmicks that ranged from a contest for fans to win a pizza party with an overweight star notorious for his love of pizza, to the open selling of players as hunky sex objects.

"The Sex is quite overt on one level. 'Hot legs, hot time, hot action-just too hot to handle,' goes a radio spot for the Pittsburgh Spirit, whose attendance has increased 10% this year though the team has plummeted in the standings. 'The Pittsburgh Spirit.... We have 20 guys in shorts who can go all night.'"

--"Show, Sex, and Suburbs"

"I brought that concept to professional sports," says Ron Maierhofer, a retired business executive living in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he says he's "still in [his] sweats" after a morning spent on the soccer field. Now 79 years old, Maierhofer played competitive soccer until the age of 69 "in leagues in eight different states," he says proudly-and has been involved in the game for nearly his entire life.

Back in 1959, he was named a Second Team All American while playing at Cornell University. Later that year, he played on the United States Men's National Team in the 1959 Pan American Games, beating both Mexico and Brazil en route to a bronze medal. He then played professionally in Canada. Three of his four sons went to Penn State on soccer scholarships. Even today, while no longer playing competitively, he's waiting on an article he wrote for the National Soccer Coaches Association to be published and for a youth soccer program in South Carolina to implement the development system he devised for 3-7 year olds.

Still, when it comes to presenting the game to the American audience, he says, "Outdoor soccer is very boring."

In 1979, Maierhofer was laying on a beach in the Bahamas when he had an idea to leave the business world to fulfill a dream of owning a professional soccer franchise. One year, 30 investors, $3 million, a couple conversations with the mayor of Denver and the city's Parks Department, and one name-the-team contest later, Maierhofer's Denver Avalanche took the indoor field at McNichols Sports Arena for the first time in February 1980.

"Our driving force was to provide an opportunity for young American players to play professionally," he says, a mission reflected by a roster filled only with North American players. However, as he also became the chairman of the league's television and marketing committees, Maierhofer knew that to provide that opportunity, he would need to put fans in the seats and get his games on television.

To put the games on local television, the team bought the time itself, then Maierhofer called the head of Anheuser-Busch at the time--who coincidentally was a big soccer fan--and swung a deal to put Budweiser taps in the previously Coors-monopolized Denver arena in exchange for Anheuser-Busch paying to run commercials on the broadcasts. As for putting people in the seats, that was simple.

"We did a study, and we found out that women like to see the male athletic body," says Maierhofer. "And we had a sport where guys were running around in shorts."

Among other marketing gimmicks to attract women to the team, Maierhofer's Avalanche frequently held dances at local bars, which players were required to attend, that he says drew crowds of 1,000-1,500 people. He claims that his Avalanche drew 50 percent female crowds, which would put them at the upper end of the reported league range of 40-50 percent. Other teams used similar strategies. There are stories from the league of players oiling up their legs to give them an extra sexy glisten on the field, and a promotion with a cologne company in which fans sent in their votes for the most attractive player. And of course, there were the famed MISL player introductions.

"Our players would come out through the goal, from the dressing room," remembers Maierhofer. "And we would have fog in the arena, artificial fog, and the spotlights blaring. And each one of our players carried a rose. And we had strategically placed good-looking ladies around the first seats around the arena. And [the players] would give a rose to each lady."

But not all the marketing was aimed at women. The Avalanche also had promotions aimed at families, such as steeply discounted tickets in the first four rows around the field for children accompanied by adults.

"And we had clowns...," adds Maierhofer.

The novelty came to an end, however, after an internal dispute among the Avalanche's investors led the team to enter Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1983 after only two seasons. With his team gone, Maierhofer applied to become the general manager of the NBA's Denver Nuggets, but was not hired and returned to the business world.

"'The only trouble is, no franchise in any sport can survive any longer strictly off box office. You need TV and all the rest. That's hockey's problem. But it matters here that the fans can see that our players aren't spoiled yet. Yet. And we got Earl Foreman as commissioner. Without him, we wouldn't even have a league now, heh. Because Earl's hit the streets in his time, you know. So if we get TV, we might have something here.'"

--"Show, Sex, and Suburbs"

"It just didn't work out," says Earl Foreman, an 89-year-old resident of Bethesda, Maryland and co-founder of the MISL, along with his friend Ed Tepper.

A former lawyer and longtime professional sports executive, Foreman is the only person in the history of American sports who can say that he signed Julius Erving and George Gervin to their first ABA contracts; once had Donald Trump hoping to install him as commissioner of the USFL; more or less invented the sport of professional indoor soccer; negotiated with Jimmy The Greek to put out indoor soccer betting lines in order to legitimize the league; helped install the president of the US Soccer Federation who oversaw the 1994 World Cup; and also still say, as Foreman does, "I helped bring outdoor soccer to this country."

In 1967, Foreman was one of eight founding owners of the United Soccer Association, running the Washington (D.C.) Whips. After only one season, the United Soccer Association merged with the National Professional Soccer League to form the NASL. The Whips, meanwhile, only lasted one season in the NASL. Out of soccer, Foreman went into basketball, purchasing the Oakland Oaks of the ABA in 1969 and immediately moving them to Washington D.C. to become the Washington Caps, then moving them again in 1970 to Virginia to become the Virginia Squires, where Erving and Gervin began their celebrated careers. In retrospect, Foreman's work in pre-NASL soccer and ABA basketball feels like a natural segue for what pro indoor soccer would quickly become.

As the commissioner of the MISL, Foreman oversaw the league's explosion in theatrics and popularity through the early half of the 1980s, the apex of which would not have been far from the time when Frank Deford's lengthy feature on the league was published in Sports Illustrated. Though Foreman could never break the barrier of a national television deal--which he saw as being integral to the league's long-term viability--the MISL was its biggest, 14 teams strong, when Foreman opted to retire in 1985.

"I'd had enough," he says, thinking back on the decision. "My time had come."

By 1989, the league had lost several franchises and generally fallen into disrepair when Foreman accepted an invitation, or perhaps a plea, to return as commissioner to help the MISL rediscover its earlier golden age, and hopefully find that elusive national television contract. With the United States scheduled to host the 1994 World Cup and still lacking a dominant major soccer league, Foreman worked on positioning the MISL to be the Division 1 league required by FIFA in the bid (a Division 1 league is a country's top professional soccer league, which the U.S. lacked when FIFA awarded them the 1994 World Cup). He recalls supporting Alan Rothenberg to become president of the United States Soccer Federation in 1990. Certainly, an ally at the helm of the national federation could only help the MISL's chances.

To imagine today a governing body as rigid and antiquated as FIFA accepting the MISL as a Division 1 league seems far-fetched. But maybe if the league could have just hung around until that 1994 World Cup, things would have turned out different.

Foreman repeats himself, "It just didn't work out."

Though he has some regrets about the MISL's league-wide marketing and the failure to secure a national television deal, Foreman remains proud of the innovation displayed at the franchise level. He talks about the Leiweke brothers, Tod, Tim, Terry, and Tracey, who started in MISL offices and have now worked at the highest levels of the NFL, NBA, MLS, NHL, and golf. He mentions MISL owners such as Ed Hale of the Baltimore Blast, one of the most popular franchises in the history of indoor soccer, and remembers when the Blast used to introduce their players by having them climb out of a giant on-field rocketship.

"That was being condemned as minor league jazz," he says of the rocketship and its kin. "Then all of a sudden you watch the NBA All Star Game and trace it all the way back and see that they copied the MISL. Honestly."

"'...the main thing soccer enjoys around the world is that it embodies the greatest human emotion. Not sex. Nationalism.'"

--from "Show, Sex, and Suburbs."

On a late summer morning, Tim Nichols is in a hotel room in Seattle on the first day of a trip through the Pacific Northwest. He's here to experience professional soccer in the region that has become the new capital of the sport in North America. He'll travel up to Vancouver for a Whitecaps game that night, and stay for the team's next game before catching a game each in Seattle and Portland, all clubs that have built their passionate support by rejecting the style brought by the MISL.

When the Vancouver Whitecaps take the field at B.C. Place against D.C. United on the night of September 6, 2014, there are no rocketships or giant soccer balls covered in pulsating lights. The Whitecaps supporters hold aloft scarves, not roses given to them by players with legs oiled and glistening. Even the score is, well, boring. The match ends in a 0-0 draw. The Budweiser Man of the Match is given to Kendall Watson, for recording 17 clearances. It's a far cry from the St. Louis Storm's 10-6 victory over the Tacoma Stars nearly 25 years ago.

Today, the Tacoma Stars are a tiny club whose last game was an 8-5 win against the Olytown Artesians at the Tumwater Indoor Sports Center. St. Louis's newest indoor franchise, the Ambush, draws a relatively healthy 5,000 people per game, but recently started play in its second league in as many seasons.

As Major League Soccer further seeks to Europeanize its product with the #MLSNext branding initiative and family-friendly hooligan culture, there is less and less room for such a strange and uniquely American curiosity as professional indoor soccer. The effort and sacrifices of people like Earl Foreman, Ron Maierhofer, the Leiweke brothers, Ed Hale, and others in doing whatever they could to maintain and grow support for American soccer in some of the hardest of times may already have been lost to history, if not for people like Nichols.

"If anyone wants to learn about this stuff," says Nichols. "They need somewhere to go."

For interested parties, he charges $14 for the first DVD, and $12 each after that.