A short history of the North American Soccer League on television, with as much ratings information as I’m able to dig up. I’m constantly on the lookout for any hard numbers relating to NASL broadcasts on ABC or anywhere else, so if you have any, contact me.
By the way, tapes of many of these old NASL broadcasts are available from Dave Wasser, the foremost collector of these things.
CBS Starts the Ball Rolling
CBS was the television home of the National Professional Soccer League in its first season of 1967, with Jack Whitaker and Danny Blanchflower behind the mics on Sundays. The network’s marketing slogan was “Just for Kicks!” but it could have been “Just for Commercials!” as referees were instructed to call fouls and delay play to allow CBS to insert commercials into the action.
|Sunday||4/16/1967||Atlanta at Baltimore||2:30pm|
|Sunday||4/23/1967||California at St. Louis||2:00pm|
|Sunday||4/30/1967||New York at Philadelphia||2:30pm|
|Sunday||5/7/1967||Chicago at St. Louis||2:30pm|
|Sunday||5/14/1967||Pittsburgh at Toronto||2:30pm|
|Sunday||5/21/1967||Atlanta at New York||2:30pm|
|Sunday||5/28/1967||Philadelphia at Toronto||2:30pm|
|Sunday||6/4/1967||Baltimore at Philadelphia||2:30pm|
|Sunday||6/11/1967||St. Louis at Philadelphia||2:30pm|
|Sunday||6/18/1967||Los Angeles at St. Louis||2:30pm|
|Sunday||6/25/1967||Chicago at Philadelphia||2:30pm|
|Sunday||7/2/1967||Los Angeles at Atlanta||2:00pm|
|Sunday||7/9/1967||Chicago at New York||2:00pm|
|Sunday||7/16/1967||St. Louis at Pittsburgh||2:30pm|
|Sunday||7/23/1967||Chicago at Baltimore||2:30pm|
|Sunday||7/30/1967||Atlanta at Philadelphia||2:30pm|
|Sunday||8/6/1967||Toronto at Oakland||3:30pm|
|Sunday||8/13/1967||St. Louis at Baltimore||2:30pm|
|Sunday||8/20/1967||Baltimore at Atlanta||2:30pm|
|Sunday||8/27/1967||Baltimore at Pittsburgh||2:30pm|
|Sunday||9/3/1967||Oakland at Baltimore||2:00pm||Championship 1st Leg|
|Saturday||9/9/1967||Baltimore at Oakland||3:30pm||Championship 2nd Leg|
In 1968, Mario Machado replaced Blanchflower (who was deemed to be a little too frank in his assessment of the quality of play) on CBS’ telecasts of the newly-renamed North American Soccer League. He and Whitaker called games weekly, usually on Sundays.
CBS got back into the game by televising Pele‘s debut with the New York Cosmos in an exhibition on June 15, 1975 with Frank Gleiber and Ben Wright on the telecast from Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island in New York. An audience of some 10 million people saw the Black Pearl score a goal and add an assist in a 2-2 draw. Well, to be honest, they didn’t see either play live – CBS was in commercial for the assist and in a replay for the goal. CBS also carried another Cosmos match and Soccer Bowl ’75.
What was supposed to be a new three-year contract with the NASL started off with the June 6, 1976 game between the Cosmos and Tampa Bay Rowdies, seen by some 3.3 million households. (At right, CBS’ Machado interviews Tampa Bay’s Derek Smethurst, photo from Ian Morris’ excellent Rowdies history blog.) CBS also showed Soccer Bowl ’76 and was to broadcast six games in 1977 and nine in 1978. The second and third years of the “contract” never materialized.
TVS Tunes In 1977-78
TVS was an ad-hoc network of stations that carried syndicated sports programming (perhaps their biggest coup was carrying the University of Houston’s upset of UCLA in basketball in 1968), and they latched onto the NASL for the 1977 and 1978 seasons. TVS carried seven games, including the Soccer Bowl, in 1977. TVS’ main NASL announcer (along with the by-then-ubiquitous Gardner) was Jon Miller, who would go on to have a great career as a baseball broadcaster.
Unfortunately for the NASL, many stations in big markets didn’t carry the TVS games, and some that did shunted them off to 11:30 pm on Monday nights, well after they had been played. A reasonably consistent, live, major network television package would elude the NASL for another year.
|Sunday||5/29/1977||New York Cosmos at Tampa Bay Rowdies||1:30pm||Franz Beckenbauer’s debut|
|Sunday||6/19/1977||Los Angeles Aztecs at Minnesota Kicks||2:00pm|
|Sunday||7/10/1977||New York Cosmos at Seattle Sounders||3:00pm|
|Sunday||7/24/1977||Chicago Sting at San Jose Earthquakes||3:00pm|
|Sunday||8/14/1977||Seattle Sounders at Minnesota Kicks||2:00pm||Playoffs|
|Sunday||8/21/1977||New York Cosmos at Rochester Lancers||3:00pm||Playoffs|
|Sunday||8/28/1977||New York Cosmos vs. Seattle Sounders||4:00pm||Soccer Bowl ’77|
|Sunday||4/16/1978||Ft. Lauderdale Strikers at Washington Diplomats||2:00pm|
|Sunday||6/11/1978||Dallas Tornado at Detroit Express||3:00pm|
|Sunday||7/9/1978||Los Angeles Aztecs at San Jose Earthquakes||4:00pm|
|Saturday||7/22/1978||New York Cosmos at Seattle Sounders||4:00pm|
|Sunday||8/20/1978||Tampa Bay Rowdies at Ft. Lauderdale Strikers||3:00pm||Playoffs|
|Sunday||8/27/1978||New York Cosmos vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies||4:00pm||Soccer Bowl ’78|
The post-Pele boom must have convinced someone that soccer was the new hot thing, because the NASL would take a quantum (yet short-lived) leap after the 1978 season.
The ABC Years 1979-81
In 1979, the NASL landed a contract with ABC that called for 9 telecasts of league games, including the playoffs and Soccer Bowl. Below is a list of the games that ABC carried that year, with play-by-play announcer Jim McKay and color analyst Paul Gardner.
The ratings were far below what ABC expected out of the “Sport of the 80’s,” and they (largely) bailed out of the contract after carrying several games in 1980.
I have been able to find some information on NASL ratings:
- A comment from former ABC Sports executive Jim Spence in the film “Once in a Lifetime,” who notes that ABC averaged a 2.7 rating for its telecasts in 1979, “representing about 2 million homes.”
- An article in the July 15, 1980 New York Times says the 1980 games averaged a 2.6 rating (the same as 1979) and a 10 share (up from a 9 share in 1979). It also mentions that 1980’s first telecast did a 2.1 rating, while a Cosmos-Washington Diplomats game on June 1 did a 3.1.
- The December 1, 1980 issue of Sports Illustrated noted that ratings for the six ABC games in 1980 averaged a “dismal” 2.6.
Major League Soccer would love to have those numbers today, as they struggle to get a million households to watch their championship game, MLS Cup.
|Saturday||5/12/1979||New York Cosmos at Tampa Bay Rowdies||3:00pm|
|Sunday||6/10/1979||Vancouver Whitecaps at Minnesota Kicks||1:30pm|
|Sunday||6/24/1979||New England Tea Men at New York Cosmos||2:30pm|
|Saturday||7/7/1979||Chicago Sting at Detroit Express||3:00pm|
|Sunday||7/29/1979||Los Angeles Aztecs at Washington Diplomats||2:30pm|
|Saturday||8/18/1979||Chicago Sting at Ft.Lauderdale Strikers||2:00pm||Playoffs|
|Saturday||8/25/1979||Philadelphia Fury at Tampa Bay Rowdies||12:00pm||Playoffs|
|Saturday||9/1/1979||Vancouver Whitecaps at New York Cosmos||2:00pm||Playoffs|
|Saturday||9/8/1979||Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies||2:00pm||Soccer Bowl ’79|
|Saturday||5/17/1980||Vancouver Whitecaps at Tampa Bay Rowdies||2:00pm|
|Sunday||5/25/1980||Detroit Express at Minnesota Kicks||2:00pm|
|Sunday||6/1/1980||New York Cosmos at Washington Diplomats||2:00pm|
|Sunday||6/8/1980||Tampa Bay Rowdies at Ft. Lauderdale Strikers||2:00pm|
|Sunday||6/22/1980||Los Angeles Aztecs at Toronto Blizzard||3:30pm|
|Sunday||6/29/1980||New York Cosmos at Vancouver Whitecaps||3:30pm|
|Saturday||8/30/1980||San Diego Sockers at Chicago Sting||2:00pm||Playoffs|
|Sunday||9/21/1980||New York Cosmos vs. Ft. Lauderdale Strikers||12:30pm||Soccer Bowl ’80|
The Soccer Bowl showed up on ABC in 1980 and 1981 (though the 1981 game was tape-delayed until late that night in Chicago in favor of a Love Boat re-run, and wasn’t seen in New York until the next day), but that was the last gasp for the league on ABC.
In the last few years of its existence, the NASL did manage to get some games on a new cable sports network that had begun in 1979 called ESPN. The new USA Network also carried games, usually on Wednesday nights. It was too little, too late, however, as the forces were already well in motion that would lead to the demise of the league.
The final NASL game ever played was also its last one ever telecast. On October 3, 1984, the Chicago Sting won the NASL title by defeating the Toronto Blizzard 3-2 at Varsity Stadium in Toronto. A crowd of 16,821 saw the game in person, while back in Chicago, they watched on SportsVision, a new pay-per-view channel. Unfortunately, it was far from the biggest sports story in Chicago that day: the Chicago Cubs beat the San Diego Padres that afternoon in the second game of the National League Championship Series. The Sting’s victory ended up on Page 7 of the sports section in the next day’s Chicago Tribune.