Name this sport: Boosters call it the Little League of the '90s. Fans are starting to pay to watch the pros, and pickup games are played in parking lots and side streets all over the country. It's even showcased in a recent movie, Airborne!

Give up? The game is roller hockey, a variant of ice hockey adapted for inline skates and a dry surface that's body-checking its way onto the American sports scene. More than a quarter-million Americans are playing some form of roller hockey, says Joseph Mireault, executive director of National In-Line Hockey Assn. in Miami, an amateur roller-hockey organizing league.

WILD RIDE. Numbers like that, say supporters, are lifting roller hockey out of the sports-novelty category. They're also giving a boost to the already wild sales growth of inline skates. According to a National Sporting Goods Assn. (NSGA) survey, 800,000 pairs of inline skates were sold in 1990. In 1992, the number leapt to 3.9 million, generating sales of $267 million.

Enter Dennis Murphy. In the statistics-crazed world of professional sports, the 65-year-old Murphy has set some sort of record for false starts. From 1965 to 1972, he organized three different pro leagues: the American Basketball Assn., the World Hockey Assn., and World TeamTennis. Only TeamTennis survives today, and Murphy is no longer associated with it.

This time, though, Murphy is getting in on the concrete floor. He and partners Larry King and Alex Bellehumeur ponied up an initial investment of $300,000-$400,000 to form Roller Hockey International (RHI) and wrote to 3,500 contacts inviting them to join. A dozen franchises were sold at $55,000 apiece--four in California, three in Canada, and one each in Connecticut, Florida, Missouri, Utah, and Washington State. The league's first season wrapped at the end of August, with the Anaheim Bullfrogs beating the Oakland Skates 9-4.

While the teams are mostly made up of former ice-hockey players, roller hockey is hardly Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Players' salaries start at $350 a week, and the prize pot that teams share is worth under $700,000. So far, corporate sponsorship is limited to some $200,000 from pad-and-stick maker Karhu USA Inc. and Canstar Sports Inc., maker of Bauer skates.

"Right now, we're driven by the industry sponsors," says RHI's King. Down the road, RHI will shoot for "AT&T or a Budweiser or somebody that can put up $2 million or $3 million in cash support for the league and then spend $6 million to $8 million telling everybody what a great deal it is," King says.

Already, though, RHI, based in Los Alamitos, Calif., has competition. ESPN has broadcast games from rival World Roller Hockey League, whose eight teams feature former National Hockey League stars Ron Duguay and Robert Picard. WRHL held all its matches in an outdoor arena at Walt Disney World last May for later telecast. "If you want to say the WRHL is constructed for TV, it is," says David McLane, president of the Indianapolis-based league.

WILLING TO WAIT. While some RHI games were televised on sports channels, RHI lacks any kind of regular TV coverage. "I think [the possibility] exists for a TV contract," says Michael Jacobsen, editor-in-chief of Sporting Goods Dealer magazine. King, however, seems willing to wait. "If a sport...has standing-room-only crowds, then it'll demand a television package. Until we have standing-room-only crowds, it'll be unrealistic to expect extensive coverage from TV."

That may be a ways off. The league champion Bullfrogs enticed 13,500 fans to the opening game at spanking-new Anaheim Arena, but average attendance was closer to 9,000. And attendance was as low as 2,300 for the Toronto Planets.

But who can divine what moves fans--especially when they start getting into the game. Larry Weindruch of the NSGA points out that the estimated 9.7 million inline skaters are "looking for more things to do on those skates." And Kar-hu predicts that sales of roller-hockey equipment will probably eclipse ice-hockey sales within the next year.

Besides, not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable that ice hockey could make any headway in California. Yet these days, the ice is jammed with the L.A. Kings, the San Jose Sharks, and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

What roller hockey needs now is a few superstars to really hype the game. Hmmm. Can Michael Jordan skate?

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