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Investors banking on fast-growing futsal to take off in United States

Photo by Gavin Ewbank

Mark Cuban is among those investing in the Professional Futsal League, which likens itself more to the NBA than to soccer. Gavin Ewbank explores:

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — In the heart of Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports, a rather unknown sport to the United States stole the spotlight.

A 5,000-seat arena, about two-thirds full, hosted a variant of the beautiful game last week on a “field” about the size of a basketball court, played with the likeness of a basketball or hockey movement up the court. Oh, and bicycle-kick goals.

I think we can become the urban solution for U.S. soccer, because a lot of kids in inner-cities don’t have access to fields, and they’ve got a lot of natural talent, but they don’t have the infrastructure to really get in involved with soccer."

- Donnie Nelson, executive director of PFL

America’s next big sport — that’s what investors hope, anyway — was on display Thursday night. It was soccer, but it wasn’t — not in the traditional sense. The Professional Futsal League’s first annual All-Star Showcase, headlined by Ricardinho and Falcão — no, not that Falcão, but superstars of their respective sport, nonetheless — and played in front of a crowd made up mostly of younger millennials The league’s CEO, Michael Hitchcock, stood in the middle of the blue and red court before the game and noted the demographic as the future of the sport. Orlando City SC and Brazilian national team star Kaká was even there to take in the event.

Two teams with players representing 12 different countries, as well as quick, flashy play highlighted the night. Team Falcão defeated Team Ricardinho, 9-8. But it’s what’s next for the sport and the league that garnered the most attention throughout the evening.

The PFL is preparing to kick off its exhibition season in 2017, with competitive play slated for the following year. Sixteen teams will start out in the league, but whom those teams will be owned by and where all of them will be located are still unconfirmed.

As of February, NBA ownership groups such as the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers are involved, along with European powerhouses FC Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Boca Juniors, Benfica, and Corinthians — with more possibly in play. And Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, himself, was announced earlier this year to have bought a principal stake in the league.

Donnie Nelson, the president of basketball operations for the Mavericks and executive director of the PFL, couldn’t dive deeper into those questions, but he was able to say all that cities hold NBA and NFL teams, and confirmed Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Miami, and Orlando will be among the cities with franchises coming into the league.

Investors see the timing of the PFL’s launch as perfect, a time when soccer in the United States is finally starting to grab the foothold among more fans throughout the country. The FIFA World Cup in 2014 grabbed millions as U.S. men’s national team made its run into the knockout round of the tournament, and the U.S. women were able to achieve even more success last year, winning the Women’s World Cup in Canada, setting television ratings records along the way. And with Major League Soccer becoming more popular by year and attendance numbers soaring throughout lower-division sides across the country, there’s a market to finally tap into.

“Timing is everything in life,” Nelson said about the rise of soccer in the United States. “Like a lot of things in life you can control the timing; sometimes you don’t. I think we were a little bit lucky with the timing of this project, but we couldn’t be more excited.”

But with those so many investment opportunities in soccer alone, why choosethe PFL?

“It’s just an exciting, high-octane sport that involves all of the skills used in soccer,” Nelson said. “You know, it’s one of those rare sports where you can sit on top of the action, like we’re use to in basketball. You can reach out and touch players, and I think that really resonates, and obviously, it’s the official developmental sport of FIFA. So when you have that credibility, and NBA ownership groups that we’re involved with, it’s a can’t-miss proposition.”

Currently, the only other top futsal league in the U.S. is Major League Futsal, which was founded in 2015 and began play this year with 20 teams. But it doesn’t have the level of investment the Pro Futsal League apparently has.

The tough part for the PFL, of course, is marketing — exposing a new league and a totally new style of play to a country still, in many places, catching up to the soccer gaining attention now.

Futsal is a five-a-side form of indoor soccer that is played in 198 of the 207 FIFA member countries around the world, and has been considered to be the fastest growing sport in the United States and the world. 

The PFL will play on a 20-meter-wide, 40-meter-long sized court — or, if you’re not one for the metric system, roughly 65-feet-wide, 131-feet-long, the maximum size allowed — and games will be broken up into 12-minute quarters, an unusual set-up from most futsal leagues (most leagues play by just two 20 minute halves), taking, of course, from the NBA.

The fast-paced, high-level action is what the PFL is hoping will attract the attention it believes it can get. Selling a new kind of soccer to a young soccer nation will be a challenge.

Nelson mentioned “urban marketing” as a big focus for the PFL, something he knows a lot about from his decades in the NBA.

“The marketability is really unique. In a lot of respects, I think we can become the urban solution for U.S. soccer, because a lot of kids in inner-cities don’t have access to fields, and they’ve got a lot of natural talent, but they don’t have the infrastructure to really get in involved with soccer,” he said. “If you look at some of the great players, they started on futsal courts. We think the timing is right. We in the NBA know a little something about urban marketing, and so the sport itself was soccer born on a basketball — or soccer and basketball combined — as a way for soccer players to hone their skills in the offseason.”

Thursday’s attendance at Disney showed promise for the fan-interest, and that is another key issue as the league builds towards 2018. Nelson noted an exhibition event last year that really opened their eyes to how popular the sport can really become.

“[In 2015], we did an event in Frisco as a test drive and we sold out a 5,200-seat arena. We basically did an e-blast to the season-ticket base [of the Texas Legends, the Mavericks’ D-League team], and we were expecting 1,000 — 5,200 showed up. ESPN3 broadcasted the game, and the response was over-whelming, so after that we kinda there was truly a market, but when you have players like Falcão and Ricardinho, the NBA partners, and the overseas global brands that see the opportunity in the US market place to make this special, that’s when it gets really neat.”

While the PFL still has another year and a half until it officially kicks off in 2018, the league is setting itself up with plenty of hopes for long-term success, something many, many indoor soccer leagues in the U.S. – a variation of the sport with boards – have failed to accomplish in the past, struggling to gain any fan and media interest.

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