ThunderHawks sit out MISL season

Indoor soccer in North America has a new look and an old name.

The new Major Indoor Soccer League replaces the National Professional Soccer League, which disbanded this week.

But the Toronto ThunderHawks will sit out the first year, at the behest of the league because of concern over the lone Canadian franchise's performance off the field last season.

"I told the Toronto ThunderHawks that the business performance was subpar, that it needed work," commissioner Steve Ryan said in a conference call Wednesday from Milwaukee.

"Toronto, Mississauga is an extremely important market to us going forward but we've now raised the bar substantially."

Toronto co-owner Neil Jamieson said the ThunderHawks lost "deep seven figures" in their inaugural season.

But he is committed to bringing the team back, providing he can improve revenues.

The original MISL was the first professional indoor soccer league in North America, operating from 1978 to 1992 with 32 different teams in 26 cities.

The 10-team NPSL, which has gone through many cities and owners in its 17-year history, will shrink to six teams next season: Baltimore, Cleveland, Harrisburg, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia.

Detroit, also plagued by financial problems, will join Toronto on the sidelines next season.

The Wichita Wings folded at the end of the last season.

Buffalo was left out in the cold although Ryan said he hoped the city would rejoin the league at some future point.

Jamieson acknowledged he wished the T-Hawks could have been part of the new MISL this season.

"We'd love to take a shot at it," he said.

But the Toronto franchise was short on the 1,000 minimum in season-ticket sales and 25,000 in pre-sales on group and other tickets over 23 home dates.

The ThunderHawks, a success on the field at 21-19 last season, only averaged about 2,000 fans a game at the Hershey Centre in suburban Mississauga.

Jamieson acknowledged that the franchise had failed in making inroads with the local corporate and soccer-playing community.

The team was hampered by the league's late schedule release and went through front-office problems in marketing and ticket sales.

Essentially, the league has got rid of the deadwood and is looking to start anew with the strongest franchises.

The key to that fresh start is the MISL as a single-entity structure, following the lead of Major League Soccer.

That allows for revenue-sharing within the league.

There will also be certainty in salary.

Players will be contracted to the league, with owner-operators running the franchises, so salaries will be uniform.

The league will also negotiate arena leases.

"I think we're in a situation where so much focus and emphasis was placed on the soccer side that we took our eye off the ball in terms of the business end," said Ryan.

The commissioner also said the ThunderHawks had to renegotiate its lease with the Hershey Centre.

"The lease that was negotiated is not favourable and will not be acceptable to the league," he said.

Jamieson, whose partners include former NHL all-star Paul Coffey and a another local businessman who prefers to stay in the background, acknowledged that unless there "increased support from the general public," it is unlikely the franchise can meet the higher standards imposed by the league.

But even if it meets the business objectives, the Toronto franchise will also have it work cut out upon its return.

The league is only allowing Toronto and Detroit to retain the rights to four players.

The six remaining teams will be able to pick through the Toronto and Detroit rosters in a dispersal draft a week Friday.

They can select the players the ThunderHawks wish to retain, but will have to give them back should Toronto return to action.

Ryan denied that Toronto and Detroit were being hard done by under the guidelines. But he said he wanted to make a point that weak sisters will not survive.

"I want teams to know from a discipline point of view that they don't want to fall into the status that Detroit and Toronto have."

The commissioner said there were no plans to put a team in Montreal next season.

Jamieson's group also owns the Impact, but chose to use its players last season to stock the ThunderHawks.

Ryan said each team will operate within a salary cap of $250,000 to $300,000 US next season.

Jamieson said the ThunderHawks spent about $600,000 Cdn ($390,00 US) on salaries this season.

The league does not have that many guaranteed contracts, but players like Cleveland's star forward Hector Marinaro Jr. of Mississauga, Ont., who have them will have their deals honoured, the league said.

Ryan also held out hope that the five teams in the World Indoor Soccer League would come on board in the new MISL. The league also hopes to attract major league owners in other sports.

Ryan said the league was able to reclaim the MISL name after one of the owners noticed it was still in the public domain.

Canadians such as Branko Segota and Dale Mitchell, currently coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps, were stars in the original league.

By Neil Davidson