No, indoor soccer didn’t outdraw the NBA in the 80s

A chart showing MISL attendance versus NBA attendance in the 1980s.

The Major Arena Soccer League is set to play its fifth season this fall with 17 teams in four just-announced divisions. As is customary in the indoor game, there are some new teams (Orlando, Toronto and a resurrected Dallas) replacing defunct teams (Cedar Rapids and Sonora), continuing a long indoor tradition of expansion and contraction.

What’s not been super-common in indoor soccer is a team relocation1By my count, this is just the 18th in the 40-year history of the indoor game, which has seen 129 clubs, also by my count., and we had that this offseason as well2In essence, the Orlando club has the ownership and will end up with some of the same players as Cedar Rapids, so feel free to consider it a relocation if you will, but the league never announced it as such and never addressed the Cedar Rapids situation.: after seven seasons in Syracuse, N.Y., the Silver Knights moved 55 miles east to Utica, where they will compete this winter as Utica City FC3We can address the dumb idea of branding indoor soccer teams like outdoor soccer teams some other time..

And it was during the press conference to announce Utica’s entry into the league that MASL Commissioner Joshua Schaub said a curious thing (you can hear it yourself at the 8:03 mark of this video):

“In the late 1980s, arena soccer actually outdrew the NBA for four straight seasons, it was extremely popular and was on the top of the American sports landscape.”

While I’ve already decried using outdoor branding on an indoor team, I’m not above using a common English slang term to address this historical tidbit of a uniquely American sport:


As you have probably already surmised by the title of this post, no, indoor soccer did not outdraw the NBA, not for four seasons, and not for any seasons, back in the late 1980s.

Here’s the truth:

If you’re old enough to remember such things, there was a time when indoor soccer was far more popular than it is today. There was also a time when the NBA was far less popular than it is today. Unfortunately for the anecdote above, those two periods didn’t overlap.

We can peg the heyday of indoor soccer to right around 1985-19864When, after the folding of the original North American Soccer League, indoor was about the only option for the most skilled players., when the first Major Indoor Soccer League had 12 teams and averaged just under 8,800 fans per game, and had some playoff games televised on CBS. Things were definitely looking up.

The generally accepted nadir of the NBA was, oddly enough, right after the exciting development of the merger with the American Basketball Association that infused the league with new talent like Julius Erving and David Thompson. During that window from the fall of 1976 until the emergence on the scene of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in 1979 (and, just a few years later, Michael Jordan), the NBA was in trouble. Attendance and TV ratings were down, and the league was beset by drug issues and a perception that it was “too black.”

But at no point during the period from indoor soccer’s debut as a league sport5The NASL had experimented with indoor tournaments for its teams in the mid-70s. in 1978 until the Bird-Magic-Jordan NBA started taking off did indoor even get within 1,500 fans per game of the NBA6The NASL played four indoor seasons between 1979 and 1984, and the AISA – which later became the NPSL – was around from 1984-2001, but adding them would only make the comparison worse for indoor, as their averages were not as robust as the MISL’s..

Take a look at the graph at the top of this post, then check out the tables below showing average league attendance for the MISL and the NBA from 1978 to 1992 (the last season for MISL I):

SeasonGTotalAverageGTotalAverageAdv. NBA

The MISL got within about 1,700 fans per game of the NBA in 1983-84 (the year before Jordan entered the league), when it boasted four clubs averaging more than 10,000 a game. The NBA, in contrast, had nine teams drawing under 10,000 a game, including the moribund Cleveland Cavaliers, San Diego Clippers and, yes, Chicago Bulls.

NBA 1983-84GTotalAvg.
Detroit Pistons41652,86515,924
Los Angeles Lakers41622,39815,180
Boston Celtics41606,85714,801
Philadelphia 76ers41588,13914,345
Dallas Mavericks41583,13414,223
Portland Trail Blazers41519,30612,666
New Jersey Nets41512,44112,499
New York Knicks41495,94412,096
Denver Nuggets41462,39711,278
Seattle SuperSonics41446,97010,902
Phoenix Suns41445,70310,871
Houston Rockets41435,85210,631
Indiana Pacers41421,20210,273
Milwaukee Bucks41414,25010,104
Utah Jazz41407,8189,947
San Antonio Spurs41375,9009,168
Kansas City Kings41370,2709,031
Golden State Warriors41337,8178,239
Washington Bullets41324,7017,920
Atlanta Hawks41292,0597,123
Chicago Bulls41260,9506,365
San Diego Clippers41228,7105,578
Cleveland Cavaliers41208,0955,075
NBA TOTAL94310,013,77810,619
MISL 1983-84GTotalAvg.
Kansas City Comets24378,86415,786
St. Louis Steamers24335,80513,992
Cleveland Force24328,61913,692
Baltimore Blast24268,53411,189
Wichita Wings24216,8249,034
Pittsburgh Spirit24198,6688,278
Memphis Americans24145,3286,055
Phoenix Pride24142,1575,923
New York Arrows24131,4725,478
Tacoma Stars24127,7285,322
Buffalo Stallions24116,0204,834
Los Angeles Lazers24105,7204,405
MISL TOTAL2882,495,7398,666

It’s this period that saw the situation that probably gave rise to the apocryphal story of indoor soccer outdrawing the NBA. Because between 1981 and 1987, there were five markets – and six seasons – in which a well-run, popular indoor soccer team had a higher attendance average than its poorly run NBA counterpart.

Here are the markets and the seasons in which the indoor team outdrew the NBA team:

The MISL’s Kansas City Comets outdrew the NBA’s Kings, 11,058 per game to 4,215 per game.
The NASL’s Chicago Sting outdrew the NBA’s Bulls, 13,322 to 9,015

The MISL’s Cleveland Force outdrew the NBA’s Cavaliers, 6,609 to 3,916
The MISL’s San Diego Sockers outdrew the NBA’s Clippers, 8,081 to 3,875
The Sting outdrew the Bulls, 9,201 to 7,343
The Comets outdrew the Kings, 14,692 to 6,391

The Force outdrew the Cavaliers, 13,692 to 5,075
The Comets outdrew the Kings, 15,786 to 6,755
The Sockers (by then back in the NASL) outdrew the Clippers, 11,415 to 5,578. (Even after the Clips moved to Los Angeles the next season, the Sockers still outdrew them, 9,595 to 9.369.)
The Sting (back in the NASL) outdrew the Bulls, 11,827 to 6,365

The Force outdrew the Cavaliers, 12,929 to 7,902
The Comets outdrew the Kings, 12,917 to 6,410

The Force outdrew the Cavaliers, 12,793 to 9,533

The MISL’s Tacoma Stars outdrew the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics, 10,384 to 8,692
The Force outdrew the Cavaliers, 14,111 to 10,905

The NBA’s Kansas City Kings and San Diego Clippers eventually moved to greener pastures (how much of that was attributable to the presence of the indoor soccer team is debatable). The Cavaliers eventually rid themselves of Ted Stepien, potentially the worst owner in sports history. And we all know what happened to get the Bulls back on track.

Meanwhile, the shine came off the Sting by the time they moved to Rosemont (and they folded 30 years ago this summer), the Comets and Stars joined the firmament of deceased clubs, and the Wolsteins had enough of the drama (and hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual losses, despite good attendance figures) and bailed from the Force in 1988. The Sockers survived until 1997, when they finally breathed their last on the eve of the opening of the CISL season7There have been two resurrections of the brand, including one in the current MASL, which also has teams called the Comets and Stars..

Here’s the point: there was a brief period where, in a handful of markets, indoor soccer was a bigger draw, on average8NBA teams played far more home games, so as far as total fans and revenue, it still wasn’t even close. than the NBA. But indoor soccer was never “on the top of the American sports landscape.” Baseball had been America’s most popular sport since overtaking boxing, college football and horse racing in the 1920s9Thanks, Babe! before pro football supplanted it in the mid-1960s at the top of the heap, where it resides to this day.

Indoor soccer had a successful heyday and enjoyed a position near or at the top of a small cadre of alternative sports leagues (remember, there was no Arena Football before 1987, no WNBA before 1997, no outdoor soccer leagues to speak of and nowhere near the number of sportainment options outside the Big Four that we have today) for a brief period in the early (not late) 1980s. The NBA did borrow many of the showbiz game presentation elements that the MISL pioneered, and, eventually, did it better, marketed itself better, corrected its issues with its players association, and welcomed some of the most exciting players in its history into the fold and onto national television screens. There are a number of reasons why the NBA is exponentially more popular than indoor soccer is today.

But there’s no question there was never a time where indoor soccer, on the whole, was more popular than the NBA. Nor did it – except for a handful of local examples – outdraw basketball on a wide scale. It’s revisionist history to say otherwise.

Kenn Tomasch

Kenn Tomasch

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