Soccer – Loved and Ignored
Only in America would fans prefer to watch the indoor game, which is nothing at all like the game the world knows
By BRUCE CHADWICK
Originally printed in Inside Sports magazine, July, 1984
IT IS FREEZING IN PARSIPPANY, N.J. There is a thick, white cover of dew on the soccer field behind the one-story, brick suburban school. Breath curls into silvery ice sculptures. The children’s scrambling feet leave a hundred fast footprints in the dew. The kids wear soccer shorts and shirts stuffed with parkas, sweaters, jogging pants, and on one girl, thermal underwear. Their ears are tucked inside wool knit caps and their hands are covered with thick, fur gloves. On the sidelines, a group of fathers shivers and jumps up and down to keep warm. Next to them, a group of mothers consumes coffee in record speed. Nobody minds the bone-chilling cold, though, because this is soccer.
The ball squirts to the right of the Parsippany goal, and the Mountain Lakes forward, No.15, age 7, kicks it into the corner of the net. Mountain Lakes wins, 2-0. The kids jump up and down. Their parents roar. No. 15’s father hugs him. This is soccer - the hot, hot, hot sport in America today.
The world has been soccer mad for decades. A man in Nottingham, England, recently killed his wife because she turned off their television set during the overtime of a soccer game. Just last December, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 36 persons were injured during a soccer game riot. In Italy, the nation’s victory in the 1982 World Cup was greeted much like the end of World War II.
In the United States, too, soccer has taken off like the space shuttle. Back in 1967, the year the North American Soccer League began, there were fewer than 100,000 people playing soccer in the United States. Today, more than four million Americans play. There are leagues for six-year-olds and for 40-year-olds. There are town leagues, traveling leagues, interstate and intrastate leagues, outdoor leagues and indoor leagues, girl teams, boy teams, coed leagues.
In many suburban towns, more than 80% of the kids play soccer. Some towns have so many kids’ soccer games scheduled, the youngsters not only play seven days a week but they play at night. In football-crazy Oklahoma, there were exactly 40 registered soccer players in 1974. This year, there are 35,000. At staid old Columbia University, there was even an old-fashioned pep rally when the soccer team made it to the NCAA finals. An old alum, Leonard Wein, was so entranced by the soccer fervor that at halftime of the championship game he gave the school a $1 million check to build a new soccer stadium. Impossible to believe, but true, today there are more American colleges playing soccer than football (532 to 505). Outside very nook and cranny, under every apple tree, Americans are playing soccer. Soccer has caught on like the hula hoop and rock “n’ roll music.
Why, then, is the North American Soccer League falling apart?
If everybody loves soccer so much, why has the NASL collapsed from 24 teams in 1979 to just nine today? If everybody loves soccer, why have three television networks - ABC, ESPN, and USA - all dropped soccer like a deflated ball? If parents love to watch their kids play soccer so much, why don’t they go to pro games? If soccer is such a wonderful, robust game for green fields and fresh air, why is the entire focus of the sport shifting indoors? Back in the mid-1970s, the New York Cosmos often put 70,000 people into Giants Stadium to see soccer, but today the outdoor and indoor leagues together average just 10,000 per game. What happened?
Depending on whom you talk to, whether it’s NASL Commissioner Howard Samuels, Major Indoor Soccer League Commissioner Earl Foreman, NCAA officials, team presidents, or a seven-year-old who just got his first goal, there are several reasons:
1. While children may want to go to soccer games, their fathers, who grew up on baseball and football, not soccer, take them to baseball and football games. It’s in the Bible - Book of Genesis - He who controlleth the wallet determineth whereto the children doth go.
2. Soccer has been a catastrophic failure on national TV.
3. Americans will not embrace a foreign game.
4. Most soccer teams are run by businessmen who would never run their own corporations that haphazardly.
5. Soccer is going to be a minor sport, not a major one, and those who banked on its major status have lost a minor fortune.
A little history. Pro soccer has always been a mess in the United States. In 1966, pro soccer got underway with a fight between two proposed leagues to get United States Soccer Federation sanction. One got it and one did not. They merged. Then the owners could not decide on a name. Pro soccer had three names before it became the NASL. Finally, in 1967, teams started playing. The league quickly expanded to 17 teams, and then, in 1969, nearly folded when 12 dropped out.
The NASL barely moved along until the Cosmos signed international superstar Pele in 1975. Americans knew little about soccer, but they knew who Pele was, just as they don’t know a hockey blue line from a red line, but sure as heck know who Wayne Gretzky is. Pele was big box office. A star. A year later, the Cosmos moved into spanking new Giants Stadium in New Jersey and the sport exploded. The Cosmos’ average home attendance hit 48,000. The Dodgers have been the only major league baseball team ever to average 40,000. Suddenly, everybody with two $10 bills in his pocket wanted to buy a soccer franchise. They weren’t reaching for the brass ring - they were tackling the merry-go-round. By ‘79, riding the crest of the Pele phenomenon, the NASL had expanded to 24 teams and the Major Indoor Soccer League, its brother-under-the-roof, began operations with six more teams. Suddenly, America had more soccer teams than Howard Johnson’s had flavors.
Then, just as suddenly, came the crash. Although the MISL had grown to 12 teams, the nine remaining NASL teams all lost money last year”¦.lots of it ($20 million). The Cosmos, the team that packed the stands for Pele, were down to 27,000 per game. Team America, the national team that Howard Samuels hoped would do well right away and then go on to win the World Cup for the US in 1986, folded after one dreadful season. The Fort Lauderdale Strikers, whose owners always figured to do well because of the sun, have packed up and moved to Minnesota. The NASL Toronto Blizzard won’t play indoors and the Chicago Sting doesn’t want to play outdoors anymore. Outdoor soccer, beloved throughout the world, has not caught on in Main Street, USA, and what is catching on, the indoor game, is really nothing at all like the game the world knows.
ALL THE PROBLEMS STARTED with the elastic expansion of 1979. It did not help the NASL. It crippled it.
“The NASL was selling a dull game, and after the Pele era, people started to realize it,” said Doug Verb, chief operating officer of the Sting. “Soccer, outdoor style, is just not appreciated by Americans. They don’t understand its nuances. Americans want scoring, lots of it, and the outdoor game doesn’t have it. At the same time attendance started to slide, the NASL went through a period of drastic mismanagement. The NASL expanded too fast and took on new owners who were underfinanced, were not soccer people, and had no commitment to the game. As soon as they lost some money, they folded. Chaos followed. The NASL has been picking up the pieces ever since.”
Richard Rottkov, an official of the United States Soccer Federation, which oversees all soccer in the US, says the NASL never truly Americanized the game. “People want to see American names on those jerseys. Frankly, most American fans can’t pronounce the names of half the players. American sports succeeded because the kids wanted to grow up to be a Mickey Mantle or Joe Namath. How attached are the kids going to be to a hero from another nation whose name they can’t pronounce? The pro game needs more Americans, and fast,” he said.
Those millions of Americans who are playing soccer, whether they can pronounce names or not, are just not going to games, and this is the heart of professional soccer’s troubles. There are more and more of these kids each day, too. The USSF estimates that the number of children and teens playing soccer in the US will increase 20% each year, or jump to 20 million by the year 2000.
One soccer executive snarls, “The NASL’s thinking has been stupid from the start. It goes like this - if 10 million kids play soccer, then 10 million kids will go to games. Now, I ask you, don’t tens of millions of Americans swim? When was the last time they sold out an 80,000-seat stadium for a swim meet?”
Television is the revenue backbone of any sport. There wouldn’t be a United States Football League today if it wasn’t for the ABC/ESPN package that Commissioner Chet Simons negotiated. Soccer had a national television package, too. Heck, it had three of them. They were supposed to expose the great game to millions nationwide, who would then rush out to buy season tickets.
It didn’t quite happen.
ABC, ESPN, and USA, like three beaus at the senior prom, all danced with the debutante and all left her standing alone in the garden.
“We wanted soccer to work,” said Jim Zrake, vice president for sports at USA Network. “We stayed with soccer, NASL and MISL, for almost four years. The audiences were never there, though. It just didn’t catch the public imagination. Outdoor soccer doesn’t seem to go on TV, because, basically, it’s a slow-moving game with very few scoring chances. It’s played on a very large field and that makes it difficult for cameras to cover it well. Also, a brilliant soccer move, like a header or super dribble, often doesn’t result in anything. In football, a great pass catch might be a touchdown or a first down. A double play in baseball might end an inning or win a game. Indoor soccer is more exciting, and there’s more scoring, but it didn’t catch on for us, either. I just don’t think soccer is ever going to make it on national television.”
HOWARD SAMUELS PACES A lot. The immaculately dressed, tall, handsome chairman of the NASL, with his thatch of leonine white hair, can’t sit still for more than ten minutes in his well-appointed, 34th-floor New York office overlooking the Hudson River.
He is pacing again.
“You ask me what was wrong with the NASL when I came in? Everything. I mean everything. The league was a mess. The financing of these teams was nuts! Nuts! I was shocked when I got here. I never believed that anyone willingly throws away money, but the NASL owners were, and they loved it. I never met so many men eager to lose money in my life,” said Samuels, who played soccer in high school and at MIT. “These people were acting like they owned the goose that laid the golden egg, when in fact they didn’t have the golden egg and were doing their best to kill the goose.”
What Samuels has tried to do is develop a uniform way to run a soccer franchise that enables owners to streamline operations and maximize profits.
“NASL headquarters is like the McDonald’s world headquarters and the teams are like local McDonald’s franchises. We’ve got to run each team the same way, an economic way, and by doing that everyone will prosper. Those who don’t, won’t.”
Samuels, a former New York politician, big businessman, and head of New York’s Off-Track Betting Corporation, is a man who knows the ropes.
“The soccer people got carried away with the Pele phenomenon. Everyone leaped into the NASL with millions. They thought that, overnight, they’d be the National Football League. Twenty-four teams in 1979! Crazy! The owners were paying outrageous salaries and signing absurd expense vouchers. The money was not coming back at the gate, and the teams folded. The NFL syndrome pervaded everywhere. We had a Soccer Bowl for several years that was modeled after the Super Bowl - neutral site. It was usually a disaster. You can have a neutral site Super Bowl in the NFL, but not in the NASL. This year, we’ll switch to a best-of-three, home-and-home series, which makes sense. NASL owners must rethink things and do it right now,” he said.
He looks straight at you now. “We’ve got to cut salaries, cut expenses, market ourselves better, secure more and better local television deals, and revive fan interest. Believe me, we can do it,” he said.
THE PEOPLE WHO RUN THE MISL, the NASL’s rival under the ceilings, do not have to revive fan interest at all. Their zippy, splashy, organized riot of a sport, with equal dashes of soccer, hockey, basketball, and even dodge ball, is doing just fine, with attendance (8,800 per game this season) more than double what it was five years ago. Five of the league’s 12 teams are making money and the seven others are losing hundreds of thousands, not millions. More than half have solid local television contracts, and many are doing so well they are outselling most NBA and NHL teams.
MISL games feature teams with 53% American players and a pizzazz the Rockettes would love. MISL games are to soccer what the halftime show is to the Orange Bowl.
The purists hate indoor soccer. It is strictly run and gun - no set-up plays or crafty strategy - with an average of 12 goals a game in arenas where the seats are right on top of the sideboards. MISL teams were colorful uniforms, and their owners stage promotions and pregame and halftime extravaganzas that would make P.T. Barnum envious. The Pittsburgh Spirit advertising slogan is “Hot Legs”¦.Hot Times”¦.Too Hot to Handle.”The Cleveland Force is guarded by a Darth Vader who prowls the sidelines. The Baltimore Blast (one of the great nicknames in sports) players used to run out of a descending, smoke-filled spaceship. Now they come out of a huge exploding soccer ball lowered from the arena ceiling.
“Actually, the sport would sell even better if it wasn’t called soccer,” said an MISL spokesman.
“We took the best parts of the outdoor game and put them indoors,” said Kenny Cooper, Baltimore’s coach.
Earl Foreman, commissioner of the MISL (and former owner of teams in the NFL and ABA) credits years of superior organization. “We started with six teams and expanded slowly and carefully. The league stresses community relations, working with youth soccer groups, and sound business practices. We have become a successful league because we have worked hard at it right from the start,” said Foreman. “We also have a game that’s right for the times.”
As an example of the MISL’s success, Baltimore Blast owner Bernie Rodin sold the team in February for a tidy profit, proving that an MISL franchise is bankable. The New York Arrows, who were, unlike the Blast, losing money, were also sold in February, rather than folded. The NASL San Diego Sockers, whose indoor games outdraw outdoor games two to one, recently sold 24% ownership at a profit. The owners of the Dallas Mavericks of the NBA just bought an MISL franchise, the Sidekicks, and will start play next year.
Many players prefer the fast pace of indoor soccer and see it as a big part of soccer’s future.
“Indoor soccer is an exciting game, a lot of thrills,” said Steve Zungul of the NASL’s Golden Bay Earthquakes, and four-time MISL scoring champ. “Indoors, there are lots of shots, rebounds, passing, and scoring. Americans love that.”
Alan Mayer, goalie with the Sockers and one of the top American players, agrees. “Outdoor action is just too slow. Americans are used to fast play, like basketball, and that’s what indoor soccer gives them.”
In some cities, like St.Louis, the team caught on fast. In others, like Cleveland, it was slow going, as the Wolsteins dropped $5 million from 1978 to 1982. Now Cleveland is a gold mine with an average attendance of 13,000.
“We always knew that if we could start winning, the city would support us,” said Scott Wolstein, the Force’s vice president. “Part of our plan was to become part of the city and have Cleveland become part of us. We started community relations the first week we bought the franchise. You must get the people involved in your team. We used to draw seven or eight kids to clinics back in ‘79. Now we draw seven or eight hundred. We planted the seeds for years and had a city ready to embrace us when we started to win [the Force spent most of this season in first place]. Now Cleveland loves us. We sold 10,000 tickets in one day last month. Community relations did all that.”
INDOOR SOCCER IS WORKING FOR some indoor NASL teams, but not others. Chicago and San Diego draw more than 11,000 per game, but the other five teams average fewer than 5,000. Even the outdoor box office champion Cosmos - playing indoors in two separate arenas - are only pulling 5,000. The NASL is sticking with the indoor game, though, and has already scheduled an even larger indoor season in 1984-85 (40 games), while cutting back its outdoor schedule to 24 games. But there is always bickering among owners at NASL meetings in regard to the indoor-outdoor mix.
“Half the owners don’t want to play indoors and half don’t want to play outdoors,” said one NASL team official. “They fight constantly. The result is that the indoor people pay no attention to their outdoor programs, and the outdoor people don’t give a damn about their indoor play.”
Cosmos executive Tom Werblin shrugs when asked about the meetings. “We are all being very flexible to make the indoor and outdoor season as viable as possible,” he says diplomatically, then smiles.
Samuels has made some drastic changes to keep the NASL alive. He has asked the players to take a 15% pay cut this year (they grumbled). He cut the size of his own headquarters office in half, slashed his own salary, got teams to fly coach instead of first class, and reduced the league budget by 30%. He has sent teams of league financial wizards around the country to help teams cut costs (as an example, the trouble-shooters helped one owner save $5,800 this year on free-parking vouchers).
“There is a future for the NASL. We’ve got to get some kind of joint operation going with the MISL. It’s just crazy to have two leagues competing for the same market. We’ve got to land strong local television contracts, and we will. Outdoors, we’ve got to concentrate on weekend soccer, big-event soccer, and market the game better. We’ve got to stop doing stupid things like scheduling games on school nights,” he said, then paused. “Listen, if I didn’t think this theory of today’s kids being tomorrow’s ticket buyers wasn’t valid, I’d quit tomorrow and I’d tell the NASL owners to pack their bags. But it is true. The NASL is always going to be around. In the future you may see an NASL that plays 40 games indoors and 20 games outdoors, but you’ll see an NASL. We are going to get healthier.”
Important overtures to local television - cable and commercial - are paying off. Several NASL teams have local contracts and half the MISL teams do. New York’s SportsChannel jumped at the chance to sign a five-year contract with the Cosmos, starting this year, that will bring in more than $500,000 a year to the team by 1989.
“Maybe soccer didn’t work nationally on TV, but it’s certainly working locally for us,” said Larry Meli, vice president of SportsChannel. “This area is a hotbed of soccer, and people want it on television. Many local and cable stations are finding that regional soccer, not national, is successful. That’s exactly what happened with the NHL.”
MISL officials believe strongly that each franchise, except perhaps Buffalo, will stay vibrant. NASL owners, while not optimistic about their future, are not pessimistic, either, and are all convinced that if the league can just hang on for five more years it will, in the long run, succeed.
“I think soccer with Pele was more than a sport. It was a cultural phenomenon. It raised illogical expectations and that started all the problems,” said the Cosmos’ Werblin. “The Cosmos believe that if we can continue to play a balanced indoor and outdoor season, we and other NASL teams can weather this storm.”
Tim Robbie, who has, with father Joe (owner of the Miami Dolphins) run the Fort Lauderdale Strikers (now in Minnesota) for years, thinks the NASL will survive and flourish.
“The owners who are left have been with the league a long time and realize what has to be done and are committed to doing it,” said Robbie. “What we must do, simply, is hang on until today’s kids start buying tickets themselves. We must get some kind of a merger going with the MISL, concentrate more on the indoor game, develop better business habits, and most importantly, develop a look of stability that, frankly, the NASL has never had. We are still just 18 years old. People forget that. We’re still finding our way.”
Perhaps no one knows more about soccer in the United States than Jack Daley, president of the San Diego Sockers and formerly with the Seattle Sounders and Toronto Blizzard. He’s optimistic, too.
“Pro soccer is here to stay,” he says firmly. “The look of soccer will change, though. In the next few years, you’ll see a much bigger emphasis on the indoor game. Last year, we drew 5,000 a game outside and 10,000 a game inside. That tells you where the game is headed. The NASL needs a merger with the MISL. The outdoor game is just too rigid.”
All this talk about an NASL-MISL merger and a new, happy face for pro soccer is never going to happen. Never.
“I just don’t see it under any circumstances,”shrugs Foreman. “There’s no reason for it. We’re an indoor sport and the NASL is an outdoor sport. Now, we’d be happy to let any NASL team join the MISL [$2 million entry fee] whenever they want. But there will be no merger.”
Other MISL people are not so diplomatic. “Why merge with them [NASL]? We’re on top now,” sneers one. “When they were on top they’d make fun of us, ridicule indoor soccer, and refuse to let us use their players during the offseason. Why let them in now?”
Three NASL teams (San Diego, Chicago, Golden Bay) did play one season in the MISL as an experiment and liked it. Talks with executives indicated all three would join the MISL if the NASL folded. They wouldn’t have to pay the $2 million entry fee (just $350,000) because of previous agreements.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE HERALDED greening of soccer’s America, the development of all those 11-year-olds blasting soccer balls into the corners of nets? Will they keep playing the game? Will their younger brothers and sisters play it? Their own children? Will kids from Canton, Ohio and Orlando, Fla., grow up to replace the Yugoslavians and Germans as American soccer stars? Will they get jobs and buy tickets to the Phoenix Pride and the Minnesota Strikers?
Yes, in time.
The appeal of the game, when you put in earplugs to all the yelling and screaming between the MISL and NASL people, is simple and beautiful.
“The only equipment you need is a ball and net. Your uniform is shorts, shirt, sneakers. You don’t need to be particularly fast, strong or big to play well. Agility is all that counts,” said Linda Seidner, an official of the New Rochelle, N.Y., youth soccer organization, one of the nation’s largest (their annual Memorial Day tournament draws more than 120 teams from all over the East Coast). “And there’s one other big factor - lack of injuries. Mothers don’t want kids to get hurt, and in soccer they don’t. I have a son. I told him already, ‘You’ll never play football because I don’t want you hurt.’ He plays soccer.”
Dennis Gallagher, an official of the Hempstead, N.Y., recreation department, has another reason. “Girls can play soccer just as well as boys at many levels. It’s the first big sport they feel comfortable in and don’t get hurt. So that has opened the door for millions more players. I have two very young daughters, and when they get older, they’ll probably play soccer,” he said.
Youth soccer, like the pro game, is moving indoors, too. Just five years ago, indoor soccer for teens meant a gym floor under basketball nets. Today, there are more than 100 indoor soccer centers with artificial turf and regulation nets and sideboards (most are renovated tennis and hockey centers). Most are in use 8 a.m. to midnight. People can play soccer year-round now, and do.
Al Paul, athletic director at Columbia University, claims the game is stronger than ever. “Kids started playing in earnest in the U.S. in the mid-1970s. Those 10-year-olds are in college now and the level of play here improves tremendously each year. Years ago, we’d have kids on our team who never even played in high school. Now, there are so many good high school players that we often have to compete with other colleges to get them,” he said.
Nowhere has soccer grown like it has at the University of Connecticut (1981 NCAA Champions). Today, soccer is so popular that even at $5 a ticket (highest college soccer ticket in the U.S.) UConn regularly puts 5,000 people in the stands, and even hosts an indoor tournament each spring.
“When I first got into soccer in the 1950s, maybe 10% of the college players were Americans and just one percent of the good ones,” said Joe Morrone, UConn’s highly respected coach. “Last spring, 75% of the players on the rosters of the four finalists for the NCAA championship were Americans. In just a few years, 95% of all soccer players in this country are going to be Americans, and they’re going to be good ones. I’ve heard this indoor vs. outdoor and NASL vs. MISL business for years, and, frankly, I don’t care anymore. All I know is that soccer is exploding in America, maybe despite the pros, and in the future it’s going to be a wonderful sport to play and watch. If the pros want to get their act together and be part of it, fine, but soccer no longer needs them to succeed.”
Originally published in the July, 1984 issue of Inside Sports magazine. © someone who is not me and reprinted without permission because I doubt they’d care anyway.