Indoor soccer quite up-to-date in Kansas City, home of Comets

Phil Thomas says he probably couldn't even kick a soccer ball, but he is part of a brave, young breed of executives that has the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) on the move. ``My job is strictly marketing and promotion,'' says the marketing director of the Kansas City Comets from his windowless office in Kemper Arena. ``The coaches handle the personnel end.''

Thus, like a general mapping troop movements from his private bunker, Thomas keeps track of myriad team promotions and giveaways on a big board. ``At 80 percent of our games the fans get something,'' he indicates, adding that caps and clothing are popular items.

The rich uncle routine only goes so far, though, in explaining why fans have flocked to see the Comets, and several other MISL teams. (Kansas City is running a neck-and-neck battle with Cleveland for attendance honors with 12,809 spectators per game.)

First there's the product, an Americanized version of soccer that compresses the action onto a small plot of artificial green turf. Some have called it ``human pinball'' for the way the rocket red ball is kept in motion by 12 players (six to a side, including a very busy goalkeeper).

``Bringing soccer indoors provides all the right speed and scoring lacking in the outdoor game,'' says Ed Tepper, a co-founder of the league, which is completing its seventh season. ``They are the ingredients the American fans look for in a sport.''

Steve Pecher, a strapping Kansas City defenseman, likes the close quarters. ``I have a better time playing indoors,'' he says. ``As a defender I get more involved in the game, and it may require more skill since the players are packed in tighter.''

Goalies sometimes even get involved offensively, starting a fast break, but they have their hands full (as well as the rest of their bodies) stopping a torrent of shots, which are launched about one a minute. Scores of 8-6 or 9-5 are common.

Just as important to indoor soccer's success, perhaps, is the slick way teams such as the Comets package this product and make their team an integral part of the community.

The Comets put together good ``game productions,'' which is to say they entertain customers almost from the moment they enter the arena. P. T. Barnum would have loved the show biz flair.

During pre-game introductions, the house lights are turned off and the club logo flashed on the ceiling. Then taped sound is added, music from the movie ``Midnight Express'' with an eerie voice-over that dramatically announces, ``They're not men. They're pure energy. They're too hot to handle.''

The cosmic reference is to the players, who come out of a fog and down a spotlighted ramp onto the field.

Soundtracks are played when the Comets have the ball, too, and faded out when the other team takes possession. A loud, upbeat tape accompanies wins; a mellow, jazzy tape losses. ``We try to assault the senses,'' Thomas states simply.

This kind of approach is not unique around the 13-team league, which has gone from a primarily eastern circuit to one stretching from coast to coast. In St. Louis, the Steamers run onto the field through a cloud of -- what else? -- steam. In Baltimore, where the Blast plays, a spaceship descends from the rafters as a disco ball sends a whirling galaxy of light around the arena.

This sort of unabashed showmanship, of course, hasn't necessarily endeared the indoor game to soccer purists. But the MISL hardly seems to care, particularly given the harsh realities of pro soccer survival in the United States and Canada.

The North American Soccer League, which plays the traditional outdoor game, has fallen on such hard times that the 1985 season had to be cancelled, a victim of over-expansion, over-spending, and general miscalculation.

The MISL, by contrast, has grown steadily, largely because of the premium it places on entertainment, tight budgets, a heavy reliance on American players, and its refusal to be in a hurry. Given the millions of youngsters playing the sport now, an optimistic Thomas comments, ``The future is ours. It's just a matter of surviving to get there.''

The league could use some network TV coverage (CBS will telecast but one playoff game on May 25), yet commissioner Earl Foreman says the MISL has carved out its own niche and doesn't intend to be subservient to the international soccer community. ``We've taken an imported sport and begun to export it,'' says the MISL chief, who will hand over the league reins to Francis Dale next month. ``We're pretty cocky about what we've done. This is our sport, come join us, we say.''

Actually, in Kansas City, the Comets seem just as eager to join the fans as they are to embrace the team. Thomas coordinates 600 no-charge, public appearances, from store openings to parades. His secretary once neglected to ask for details, and dispatched him and a player to a five-person family picnic. ``We spent two hours with them, though, and had a good time. They wound up buying season tickets.''

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