The I-League: Does America Need More Indoor Soccer?

“The I-League is a national indoor soccer league that features an economically viable model for team owners. Set to debut in 2011, the I-League will offer high-level professional indoor soccer in regionalized divisions.  The launch of the I-League is the initial phase of USL’s efforts to build the soccer pyramid to meet the growing demands of the indoor game.”

So says the USL, operators of a new indoor league set to launch in the United States next year. We already know a team from Rochester will play in it, probably called the Lancers after the old NASL team. And that’s about all we know.

I’m not aware of any great pent-up demand for new indoor soccer teams, or another indoor soccer league, in Rochester or just about anywhere else in the United States at this stage.  Crowds for a handful of indoor games held in Rochester in 1997 weren’t particularly impressive, and since then, indoor soccer’s star has only fallen relative to the outdoor game nationwide.

The landscape for indoor soccer has changed quickly. As recently as 2001, in their excellent academic study Soccer and American Exceptionalism, Markovits and Hellerman wrote that “in the United States, this version of soccer undermines the still precarious culture of the “game proper” itself by offering an alternative and competitive threat.”

That’s just not really the case any longer, with handfuls of teams left and dwindling numbers of fans attending indoor games.

It might still be possible to sell indoor soccer if you’re Peter Wilt. And some teams still can boast of a longer existence than their MLS counterparts: in the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL), the Milwaukee Wave date back to 1984, the Baltimore Blast to 1992 and the Philadelphia Kixx to 1995.

But even those who love indoor soccer, like our friend Kenn Tomasch, worry for its future with declining attendances (from a post a few months ago):

I love indoor soccer – have for some 30 years. But it’s hard to ignore the sad landscape of this sport right now. With three games to play (all this weekend), this latest MISL (there have been three, give or take) is on pace to have an overall average attendance of somewhere around 3,700 fans per game. Except for last season’s Xtreme Soccer League (which averaged 3,435 for its mere four teams), a [indoor] league hasn’t gone under the 4,000 mark in average attendance since the NPSL of 1991-92.

The MISL ended up with an average attendance in the 2009-10 season of 3,934. Attendances in the MISL are nearly half those of indoor soccer at its peak in the late 1980s, when it was not merely competitive with outdoor soccer, but outstripping it: indeed, this was the launchpad for the USL organisation, which began as an indoor league in the southwest in 1986.

All that said, there’s no particular reason indoor soccer can’t survive at that level of attendance if costs are kept in check, and as Peter Wilt’s pointed out here before, actual revenue can go up even when attendance goes down, if one is selling more tickets (and giving less away) while also raising sponsorship income. So it’s perhaps not as bleak a picture as it appears, at least in Milwaukee’s case. The Wave’s attendance dipped from 4,247 in 2008-9 to 3,934 in 2009-10, but ticket revenue was up 30% and sponsorship revenue up 35%. Still, that’s a far cry from the late 1980s, when under Wilt’s previous stewardship two decades ago, the Wave averaged over 7,000 fans a game. Selling indoor soccer is, it seems, is an awful lot harder now.

Then there’s the question — what does the USL’s reference to the new I-League mean by saying it “features an economically viable model for team owners”? It would seem from the limited information we have that this refers to its plan for “regionalized divisions” that would substantially reduce travel costs. In the MISL, there’s a fair old distance in a six team league that spans two countries, from Baltimore in the northeastern United States to Monterrey in Mexico. So that makes sense, as we’ve seen discussed in relation to second division outdoor soccer in the vast space that is North America as well.

But whether we really need more competing indoor leagues in North America is another question entirely. If we look at this sentence from the USL’s statement — “The launch of the I-League is the initial phase of USL’s efforts to build the soccer pyramid to meet the growing demands of the indoor game.” — and replace “demands” with “challenges”, we might be closer to the reality of the I-League’s apparent impending appearance on the scene, and is existence might just muddy the waters of a form of the sport that has an unclear future here as it is.

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