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Investors Banking on Futsal to take off in United States

Investors are banking on the fast-growing sport of Futsal to take off in the United States.

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

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.

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 cities that 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 choose the 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.”

By: Gavin Ewbank

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