NPSL All-Star Game
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: HSBC Arena
Buffalo's All-Stars: Carlos Zavala, Danny Barber, Randy Pikuzinski and Andrew Crawford
National Professional Soccer League Commissioner Steve Ryan admits that last year at this time, he knew the name of only one player in the indoor league that holds its annual All-Star Game at HSBC Arena tonight (7:30, Empire).
"I'd heard of Hector (Marinaro, the NPSL's Michael Jordan) but I'd never heard of any others," Ryan said Tuesday at a news conference surrounded by the brightest stars in one of professional sports' most invisible leagues.
Ryan, a 30-year professional marketing executive whose career has included peddling Maxwell House Coffee, J&B Scotch, Marriott Hotels and the National Hockey League, was hired last summer to also try to turn the NPSL and its players into household words.
"Part of my challenge is to make them well known," said Ryan, who so far has measured his progress in baby steps. Steps like getting the NPSL standings published in USA Today on Fridays and restarting an official Web site (npsl.com) that had been dormant for months.
So far this season, attendance in the 10-team NPSL has averaged 4,651 per game, down about 10.5 percent from this time last year, when the league had 12 teams, including now defunct clubs in St. Louis, Edmonton and Montreal. (The latter has essentially moved to Toronto.)
Ryan says only "a small number" of the teams are profitable and, as has been the case for many years, the league has had very little local or national TV exposure.
"The league needs to gain a higher profile in the sports marketplace," Ryan said. "I think we're on the radar screen, but it's very low. And the reason for it is that we've not been proactive. We've not been reaching out and been aggressive in reaching out to the national media. . . . We've not done a very good job."
He thinks all that is starting to change.
One of Ryan's first actions was to move NPSL headquarters from Canton, Ohio, to Westport, Conn., which is both near his Fairfield, Conn., home and the nation's electronic media hub.
"Our game plan is to meet with all the cable broadcasters in the United States and Canada. To talk to them about this game. I know many of them and can show them what a great product it is. . . . This is a product that's made for television," Ryan said.
"We've got to be television friendly. If you look at our schedule, we need to make some modifications to it. . . . (For instance), if ESPN came and said, 'We're going to make Saturday afternoon Soccer Saturday,' we need to have some flexibility."
In Buffalo, Blizzard attendance has fallen 38 percent to 3,778 per game and in a radio interview Tuesday, owner John Bellanti again said that at the end of the season he will reconsider "if Western New York really wants an indoor soccer team."
"Buffalo is down in terms of attendance, for sure," Ryan said. "John and I have had one conversation about it and we're going to have several more. Because running a professional sports franchise is a full-time job, we're talking about what we need organizationally to make these things successful. . . . I think this team has been very active in the marketplace at the grass roots level, but it hasn't been visible to the sports fans, the way that the other teams are. And you need to be marketing-driven to be successful."
Ryan said his short-term goal is to boost ticket sales to 6,000 fans per game per team.
"We've got work to do in that area, but I think it's achievable," Ryan said. "Look at the attendance we just had over the last week," he said referring to crowds of 13,105 in Milwaukee, 12,669 in Kansas City and even 4,225 -- more than twice the season's average -- in Toronto.
"I think we're on the upswing in terms of attendance. I know we're on the upswing in terms of momentum. I think there's momentum across many fronts. Moving the league into the New York area, staffing it up with very competent young people and being proactive in promoting our league to national media. And we are really getting ownership together to where they've got a common mission as to where we're going. . . . Our focus is really on building profitable teams."
Buffalo Blizzard forward Andrew Crawford was added to the American Conference lineup Tuesday, replacing injured Cleveland Crunch forward Nikola Vignjevic. Crawford is No. 4 in the NPSL with 13 one-point shootout goals. He represented the Blizzard in the 1997 All-Star Game at Baltimore.
The captain: Hector Marinaro is the NPSL's all-time leader with 2,003 points.
The coaches: Omid Namazi (46-32) of Philadelphia, assisted by Kevin Healey (61-48) of Baltimore.
Injuries: Scott Schweitzer (knee), Nikola Vignjevic (thigh), Danny Kelly (groin), Doug Neely (groin).
Fast fact: Buffalo's Randy Pikuzinski leads league with 531 career games.
The captain: Wes Wade has 367 career assists, No. 6 on NPSL all-time list.
The coaches: Gary Hindley (129-105) of Toronto, assisted by Keith Tozer (357-216) of Milwaukee.
Injuries: James Dunn (knee), Victor Nogueira (back).
Fast fact: Dino Delevski and Joe Reiniger lead the league with nine three-point goals each.