Indoor soccer boom netting big numbers
Boston Globe, January 12, 2001, page 12 Frank Dell'Apa, Globe Staff
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company
INGHAM - George Karalexis had played college and semi-professional soccer in Boston and was an alternate on the 1968 US Olympic team, but he knew when it was time to pass the torch.

But by the mid-'80s, Karalexis was busy teaching and raising a family. Karalexis would teach his sons to caress and control the ball in the backyard of their Weymouth home, and when the snows came, he would take them to refine those skills at the South Shore Sports Center, which, at the time, was the only area facility offering year-round soccer.

Jason and Tim Karalexis would move on, becoming All-America players at St. Anselm's. But their father unexpectedly found himself back where the kids had started - playing soccer at the South Shore Sports Center.

''When I was playing at Boston University, I played a total of 27 games in three years,'' said Karalexis, 58. ''I used to play for club teams, also, but I play a lot more soccer now than when I was younger because you can play year-round. I probably play about 70 games a year, most of them indoors.''

Karalexis, a teacher in Braintree, and his teammates - contractors, doctors, journalists, laborers, lawyers - congregate weekly in what has become a ritual love affair with the game.

The 60,000-square-foot Sports Center, converted from a tennis club in 1982, is a meeting place for more than 2,000 soccer players. Games begin at 6:30 a.m. on weekends and conclude after midnight. There are leagues for 8-year-olds, coed leagues, over-40 leagues, even a Soccer For Moms league.

It all adds up to an indoor soccer boom, with tin-roofed warehouse-like facilities and sophisticated, inflated ''bubbles'' springing up around New England. They house baseball batting cages, golf driving ranges, floor hockey, sometimes under the same roof. Soccer is by far the most popular of the climate-controlled sports.

There are 19 soccer facilities in Massachusetts and a $4 million center has been proposed for Brockton. There are four more in New Hampshire and three in Rhode Island.

The larger facilities house from 100 to 300 soccer teams, with each team composed of at least 10 players. The smallest operation is probably The World of Soccer, located in a 10,000-square-foot former cinema behind a storefront on Main Street in Woburn.

Team fees are about $600 per season, with two to four ''seasons'' scheduled annually.

The game itself is a hybrid of soccer and ice hockey. Most contests are six on six, with hockey boards, a single referee, no offsides restrictions, but a ban on three-line passes. In Latin America, the game is called futsal (an acronym for ''futbol salon,'' or ''indoor futbol''); no hockey-style boards are used, and in Brazil especially, the emphasis is on sharpening young players' ball control. There is a Federation Internationale de Football Association-sanctioned World Cup tournament for futsal.

Both the North American and the Latin version of the game place a premium on technical skill, which is one reason why Karalexis has been able to thrive against younger opponents. When Karalexis learned to play soccer as a teenager in Boston, training sessions were held in gymnasiums, but only outdoor soccer was taken seriously.

Though the indoor soccer experience is a recent phenomenon in New England, the initial games were played at the Boston Armory, where a professional league performed on a full-length field in the 1890s. Then, soccer was an extremely popular sport in the region. The Springfield YMCA, was used for indoor soccer - the frequency of broken windows from flying soccer balls led to the development of basketball. Among James A. Naismith's mandates was to invent a winter activity that would not be rough on bodies or buildings.

But while the revival of American soccer was taking place in the South and West in the '70s and '80s, the game's growth was stifled in cold climates.

Indoor facilities constructed specifically for soccer first became popular in St. Louis in the '70s. While the New England scene was still getting a foothold in the late '80s, there were 15 indoor facilities in the St. Louis area.

''When we opened in 1980, there were probably six in the country,'' said Rick Derella, of the Oakwood Sports Center in Glastonbury, Conn. ''Now there are about 300, at least two-thirds dedicated full-time to soccer.

''It all started with the MISL [Major Indoor Soccer League], because the teams needed practice facilities. There used to be games in gyms, armories, convention centers. All the top players played, all the stars from the Cosmos played in tournaments in New York. But no one knew if you could operate one of these places year-round.''

Oakwood was a tennis club when the Hartford Hellions of the MISL rented three courts for practice in 1980. Soon, they converted one court to a soccer field, and by 1990 the place ''went all soccer,'' Derella said.

''I would say it's still growing as a business,'' Derella said, ''but what people don't realize is that it's seasonal.''

Tony Martone, owner of the South Shore Sports Center, knew he had a winner almost immediately.

''We were taking a major chance,'' Martone said. ''We started with maybe 30 or 40 teams the first season. There was an incredible amount of skepticism that indoor soccer could be a viable business. It was a struggle to overcome that but I think we've set standards for indoor soccer for the area and throughout the country. In the '80s, anyone who wanted to open an indoor soccer facility came to Hingham to look at our business plan.

''We were the only facility around and people were driving 11/2, two hours from Cape Cod, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Worcester, to play on a regular basis. As the popularity increased youth coaches started to realize the benefits - it was an opportunity to give their teams year-round fitness and also develop and sharpen skills. We created a soccer atmosphere, and that was important, especially in the old days.

''Then, if you were an outside back on a high school team you might touch the ball five or six times a game. Indoors gave you an opportunity to get touches, and even if you missed the ball it would come off the boards and you'd have a chance to get it right. Within two or three years, the level of soccer improved dramatically and it was reflected at the high school level. Instead of struggling, Weymouth and Marshfield teams started winning.''

But profits depend on more than a high ceiling and low overhead. At the South Shore Sports Center, you can buy soccer equipment at the entrance and have a postgame drink and pizza in the lounge. Most important, though, is consistent game presentation.

The Henry family of Norwell spends five nights a week at the South Shore Sports Center. Matt Henry and son Ryan, 14, play on the same team - the Stingers in the Men's B League. Carol Henry used to accompany her husband and sons to games before starting the Soccer For Moms program in 1996.

''My husband played in high school but I didn't get going until I was 30,'' Carol Henry said. ''I helped out coaching the kids and always enjoyed kicking it around with them. I always thought the game looked like fun, so three of us got together and started playing one morning. We each called a friend and that made six of us the next week, and it grew like that until we needed a referee, and now there are seven teams.''

Don Cragg rents a horse pavilion from the Topsfield Fair and converts it into two soccer ''rinks'' for the autumn and winter seasons of the Topsfield Sports Arena. Cragg said he moves 18 tons of Astroturf and other accessories into the arena every October.

''There is not a tremendous amount of square- foot income,'' Cragg said. ''Natick went under when it was running at capacity. It wasn't generating enough income. The biggest point in our business is that it is not being played in a normal season.

''I have a bad check that I keep in the bottom of the tray in the cash register, actually two from the same guy. I let the team play because I knew if we knocked them out they would really lose out. They were 17-year-olds and they were coming from an environment that did not generate a lot of joy for them, and they needed help. In 15 years in this business those are the only two checks I have ever had that failed, and 99 percent of our business is checks. You get two bad checks a day in the restaurant business. It reminds me of the quality of the people involved in soccer. They are the nicest, kindest, most civilized, and most dependable I have ever dealt with.''

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Posted 25 November 2001 (better late than never)
D. Hitch