With the 2014 FIFA World Cup underway and the United States team set to play Ghana in its opening match on Monday, let us take a moment to recognize a momentous anniversary.
Twenty years ago today – June 15, 1994, a story on the front page of the sports section of the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted sports marketing analyst Nye Lavalle, who was not exactly bullish on the long-term prospects of the new professional soccer league that was due to start up in the aftermath of the 1994 World Cup.
“There is no chance it will survive. Absolutely no chance whatsoever.”
Well, here we are, twenty years later. Major League Soccer now has 19 teams (a 20th, New York City FC and 21st, Orlando City SC, begin play in 2015) and is on its way to 24. Seventeen of the 21 either already play or will soon play in stadiums build primarily for soccer. It has a new television contract that pays it more than ever. Attendance now surpasses the six million mark annually and will continue to rise. Its stature and place in the world game is also rising.
How do you like that prediction now?
To be fair, the game’s prospects on these shores could not have been considered promising in 1994, given the death nine years prior of the last, best attempt at a national league, the US team’s long absence from the World Cup, the dearth of soccer on television and in the American sporting consciousness and skepticism over USA ’94. But to not just say “It’s unlikely to work, based on history, among other things” would have been one thing. To say that not only wouldn’t it survive, but that there was absolutely no chance whatsoever it would survive…well, that is the type of Shermanesque statement you get called on by people like me after the fact when it turns out you were as wrong as you were vehement.
Lavalle – whose other pronouncements and predictions included “(Baseball) has peaked and now it’s on a decline (1994),” “Baseball is not a TV sport and never will be (1994),” “The next few years are going to bring about the biggest falling out of the sports industry in history, something not unlike the deregulation of the airlines (1992),” and “There aren’t that many people interested in hockey (2004) – did foresee the mortgage crisis long before it nearly wrecked our economy. But his prediction about the future of Major League Soccer was completely and utterly wrong.
He wasn’t the only one making such predictions, just the most vehement and the one I’ve chosen as the poster boy for the skeptics. Here’s a sampling of the sentiments expressed by some media mavens in the run-up to MLS’ launch in 1996:
“No matter how many American soccer converts were made (by the 1994 World Cup), no matter how many kids were enticed to run off with the circus someday, no matter how much cash the World Cup pumped into the nine host cities, the idea of major-league soccer in this country simply won’t fly anytime soon.”
Steve Wilstein, Associated Press, July 18, 1994
“There’s a better chance of a national health plan being passed by Congress than of a major pro (soccer) league in America.”
Art Spander, San Francisco Examiner, June 5, 1994
“Our national team is spread out among 10 localities and charged with making us like the game. This would have been like taking the 1980 US Olympic hockey team and starting a whole new league by placing its members around the country. And the ice hockey team did, incidentally, win a gold medal, as well as whip the Red Army. Chances of that working would seem to be better than this.”
Bernie Linciome, Chicago Tribune, April 8, 1996
“The World Cup, should no one get killed, is a fabulous event. Enjoy it. And enjoy the next one. And if, in between, you patronize any and all pro soccer leagues that begin here, enjoy them too. They’ll be gone faster than the girl over there with the hula hoop.”
Phil Mushnick, New York Post, June 15, 1994
All wrong. (Spander gets bonus points because Congress actually did pass a national health plan.)
We’ve beaten the odds, boys and girls. The days where skeptics could say “It’s never going to work,” and, later, “It will surely fold soon” are over. Major League Soccer isn’t going away, and is only going to continue to grow and improve. The naysayers have less and less to naysay with each passing day.
Lavalle made his prediction about MLS prior to the actual start of the 1994 World Cup; a month later, he gave at least grudging kudos to the tournament itself, but still didn’t like MLS’ long-term prospects when quoted in the New York Times on July 19, 1994:
“For World Cup soccer worldwide, the World Cup gets a grade A; for staging of the World Cup in America, it gets a grade A. But for the future of soccer in America, the grade is incomplete. If you want a prediction, it seems like the term paper will be turned in and it will get a failing grade.”
The papers are all turned in. The assignments are done. We’ve passed.
Happy Nye Lavalle Day, everybody.