CLEVELAND - Just a week after what turned out to be the final National Professional Soccer League All-Star Game last year, then-rookie commissioner Steve Ryan had his staff gathered to plan for the next one.
So there he was Sunday night in Cleveland, home of the inaugural 2002 Major Indoor Soccer League All-Star Weekend, handing the Most Valuable Player award to Philadelphia KiXX forward Joel Shanker (the East defeated the West, 17-15, in overtime) as the final act of a highly successful three-day event.
With a strong business background that includes 13 years as a marketing executive in the NHL, Ryan, 59, is a personable, numbers guy from New York who savored the stat sheet last weekend: a league All-Star-record crowd of 13,216 at Gund Arena; nearly 60 media credentials issued, and numerous television breaks with the game aired nationally on CNN/SI and locally on Comcast's CN8.
As for last year's game in Buffalo, which no longer has a franchise? There was a meager crowd of 4,647, and only one hand was needed to count the press passes.
"I feel like he's the one that has made the big difference when he came to this league," said Blast All-Star Denison Cabral. "He's the one that brought everything to the table. He's the one that's put his name and pretty much everything he's already done in his life on the line just to get this league going. And then I think, 'Man, he comes up to me personally and thanks me for being here.' "
Cabral made sure to find Ryan after the game Sunday, returning the favor with a thank you of his own. Ryan said that interaction was among his weekend highlights, along with having many of the MISL stars of the past back playing in the Legends Game and later bumping into another legend who is still playing, the Dallas Sidekicks' Tatu.
"He said he's been in 15 or 16 all-star games and has never dreamed it could be this big and good. So from a professional point of view, I felt a great sense of pride," Ryan said.
Pulling off the All-Star Weekend extravaganza was just a sample of what Ryan has accomplished since taking over less than two years ago as he continues to raise the bar: "He is a door opener of the first magnitude - I've never seen anything like it," said Blast team operator Ed Hale.
Ryan's first order was to assess the NPSL, examine the numbers and design a progressive plan. In August, he launched the new MISL, dumping weak franchises and forming a limited liability company with ownership consisting of individual team investors and operators. A salary cap for players provided cost certainty to enhance revenue growth and acceleration.
The six-team league will increase to at least nine next season with former World Indoor Soccer League franchises - the San Diego Sockers, Dallas Sidekicks and St. Louis Steamers -in place and further expansion expected. It now has a broader geographic territory and, even more important, no more competition from other leagues.
"What Steve has brought is a direction and a focus which the league never really had in the past, and he's been able to get everybody on the same page believing we can always do better," said Brian Fleming, the league's vice president of operations. "He's very much in control and very direct so you know what's expected of you. He's organized the right people, put them in the right places and brings very high demands on everyone across the league."
There's plenty of work remaining, Fleming said. Only recently has attendance shown strides from last year's numbers (last year's average was 5,003; this year's is 5,109, but 5,482 since Jan. 1). Continuing to add sponsorships and finalizing a national television deal for next season is at the top of Ryan's to-do list.
"We all know how important television is and after the All-Star Weekend, I'm convinced it's even more important," he said. "Saying you're going to do it and doing it are two different things, and now we've demonstrated that we've got execution ability. I think the execution was flawless in terms of all aspects [on Sunday], so I feel comfortable that we have now developed a major marketing platform that will have television appeal, sponsorship appeal and grass roots appeal."
Zoran Savic, the Kansas City Comets' coach and a tired Legends participant on Sunday, said for the first time in the history of indoor soccer "everybody is on the same wave length."
Ryan is quick to agree.
"I think we're tracking well," he said. "The next 18 months are going to be very important for our league as far as moving forward in terms of awareness ... making sure we grow rapidly the credibility of the MISL."