If you decide to blast off to a Blast game sometime, do yourself a favor and get there before countdown begins.
The Blast, Baltimore's pro indoor soccer team, is drawing fans as a marsh draws mosquitoes. One reason is the hoopla that precedes each game.
Player introductions alone are an odyssey. Start with a terrific sound system booming out "Ride Like the Wind." Cut off the lights and beam a zillion-candlepower spotlight on a disco glitter ball hanging from the ceiling, so the auditorium is bathed in revolving star patterns.
Throw in 11,000 shouting, clapping fans; add a public address announcer shrieking over the music and an otherworldly film sequence of Blast players running through a foggy moonscape.
Amid the din, a spaceship descends from the rafters, its landing lights blinking. Touchdown. The door bursts open and Blast players charge out in a cloud of smoke, fists raised. Fireworks erupt--big ones that shake the old arena to its foundation and put the crowd in a frenzy.
"We think it's the most elaborate psych up in the league," said Mitch Burke, the 29-year-old general manager. "We figure we're selling a new product so we want to entertain people from the minute they get here to the minute they leave."
Whether it's sports or show biz is a question. Whether it works or not is not. It works.
On Friday the Blast, in its second year in the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL), drew 11,031 wired-up patrons to the Civic Center. That same night the venerable NBA Washington Bullets, on a hot streak and playing their best basketball of the year, drew 6,234 to Capital Centre.
Another 24 customers and the Blast would have had their third sellout of the season after only eight home games. They average more than 9,000.
The crowd-catching MISL may be the hottest prospect in professional sports. Two weeks ago, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat posed this question to its readers: "Name the second-highest-drawing team . . . in U.S. indoor sports."
The answer: the St. Louis Steamer, the city's 3-year-old MISL franchise, which averaged 17,418 at its first seven home games this season. That's 72 fewer than professional sports' biggest indoor draw, the NHL Edmonton Oilers with hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky.
What is this phenomenon called indoor soccer and how has it captured so many hearts so fast?
Gordon Bradley, who coached the Washington Diplomats in the North American Soccer League before they died for lack of interest, calls the indoor game "a bastardization." But he was in Baltimore Friday night to watch the Blast dispatch the Cleveland Force, 7-6, and he conceded at halftime that the indoor version may be the answer to selling the grand old foot game to fickle Americans.
In fact, Bradley and some colleagues are pondering a new Washington franchise to play at Capital Centre, with negotiations in the earliest formative stages.
Meantime, the Blast is hauling in the fans at $3 to $7 a ticket. Along with Bradley, the audience Friday night included Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer and family and old standby Wild Bill Hagy, who was leading fans in a "B-L-A-S-T" version of his traditional "O-R-I-O-L-E-S" cheer.
The Blast's appeal is infectious, nurtured along by careful planning and slick marketing. The sport is fast-paced and high-scoring, with an average of 10 goals a game. A New Jersey player once scored two goals in seven seconds. It takes no time at all to learn the rules and understand what's going on.
The game is in 15-minute quarters and played on plastic grass tossed over an ice-hockey rink. There are five players and a goalie on each side; substitutions are made "on the fly," as in hockey, and each team gets two timeouts. Penalties are handled like hockey's, with players serving two-minute terms in penury and their teams playing shorthanded. Passes and plays revolve around banging the red-and-black soccer ball against the boards.
It makes for end-to-end action that is almost nonstop.
Bradley says the level of talent among indoor players is not as high as in the NASL outdoor game, but it seems to matter little to the fans. The action is so close at hand that skillful moves are much more apparent, and, when a slick pass or a booming shot succeeds, almost everyone sees it in all its glory.
Blast officials did a study of their fans to see who was being attracted and found the audience was generally aged 17-35 and 40 percent women. Burke said fans are largely white-collar workers and include many families escorting soccer-playing children.
The high percentage of women, Burke said, could be because the game is new and women don't feel intimidated by ignorance of the rules, as they might at football or hockey games. Anyway, there are hardly any rules. "In the first five minutes you'll probably see every rule there is," Burke said.
Part of the marketing effort has been to get away from the NASL's penchant for foreign stars, many of whose names are anathema to American ears. Each MISL team must carry 13 American-born players on its roster.
But the efforts to woo fans go beyond game rules and regulations. Blast officials are all but fervid in their public relations, from the secretary who answers the phone with a cheery "Blast office" to the well-intentioned coach, Kenny Cooper, who sends his players to speak before any civic group that asks and who lurches out onto the field when attendance is announced to lead his players in applauding the crowd.
Cooper knows first-hand the problems of selling soccer in the U.S. He was goalkeeper for 10 years with the now-defunct NASL Dallas Tornado. "Soccer is not a game of tradition here," he said. "U.S. sports are high-scoring, end-to-end action. You can't break that tradition overnight by bringing in soccer and saying, 'Hey, this is a great game.' "
Indoor soccer, by contrast, is off and running. No team has yet shown a profit, Burke said, but St. Louis is on the brink and all are waiting for expected cable television contracts to pour in. The game translates perfectly to TV.
The MISL was formed in 1978 with six teams. Today's 13 teams play a 44-game schedule over seven months. The teams often have long waits between engagements, but the wait is for a purpose. They get good arena dates, mostly weekends, when they play.
Of the 20 Blast players, half are on 12-month contracts, doing public relations work in the offseason, and Cooper said the lowest-paid man on the roster is making $20,000. They are all professional athletes, not bartenders or warehousemen with side jobs playing soccer, he said.
The star in the victory over the Force Friday was Peter Baralic, last year's Diplomats captain who has moved over to the indoor game. He scored a hat trick--three goals.
There are plenty of other NASL veterans in MISL today as outdoor soccer shrinks and indoor soccer grows. But NASL, worried by the competition, last year ruled that its players could not join MISL teams in the offseason, creating some friction between the two leagues. NASL teams now also have an indoor winter season, but with a shorter schedule.
THE GAME: Three minutes and 11 seconds had fled before the first score, the Blast's Dan Counce sending the shot home after Baralic's neat cross-court pass.
A minute and a half later the Force was swarming around the Blast goal. Goalkeeper Sepp Gantenhammer (a native New Yorker, of all things, who looks like a healthy Rod Stewart) made a great save but the ball bounced back to the Force's Trevor Franklin, a former Diplomat, who banged it home to tie the score.
The tie lasted 33 seconds, at which time Baralic broke free, faked out goalie John Houska one on one and put the Blast up, 2-1.
Which lasted 3 minutes 2 seconds, at which time ex-Loyola soccer star Nick Mangione took a perfect feed from Joe Fink (the best American-born player in the league, many think) and put the Blast up, 3-1.
The Force called timeout and the fans went wild, as well they might after having seen four soccer goals in less than nine minutes.
Gerry Kelly, who covers the Blast for the Baltimore Evening Sun, dropped by a bewildered visitor to explain what was happening. "The difference," he said, "is this: outdoor purists, indoor fanatics."
Kelly, a Scotsman who grew up with soccer, said the first time he saw the indoor variety, "I knew this is what America wanted--scoring, elbows, bloody noses."
To judge from the Baltimore experience, he's right on cue.