SI Vault
Martin Kane
March 27, 1967
Money from millionaires and exposure by television give the world's most popular team game its first opportunity to win the hearts of the American sports audience. Starting next month the U.S. will be treated to its first look at seriously promoted soccer, with all its marvelous and dramatic action.
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March 27, 1967

The True Football Gets Its Big Chance

Money from millionaires and exposure by television give the world's most popular team game its first opportunity to win the hearts of the American sports audience. Starting next month the U.S. will be treated to its first look at seriously promoted soccer, with all its marvelous and dramatic action.

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A victim of circumstance and Yankee inventiveness, the game of soccer—supreme among sporting pastimes in much of the rest of the world—never has been popular in the United States. Introduced to this country around 1830, its misfortune appears to have been that after the Civil War, when the transplanted game was just beginning to develop in an organized way, it ran headlong into something that used to be known as " Harvard indifference." At the same time baseball was becoming a passion (the first professional baseball league was formed in 1871, and Casey at the Bat was written in 1888), basketball was about to be invented (in 1891) and, most significantly, college football was born, because Harvard (in 1873) decided that it preferred its own " Boston game" to soccer. That year Harvard declined to attend a New York meeting at which Yale, Columbia, Princeton and Rutgers were to form the Intercollegiate Football Association, which is to say, the intercollegiate soccer association. Had Harvard participated in that meeting, soccer might have become our great intercollegiate and professional sport. Football, as we know it today, would have been buried under an elm in Harvard Yard. But the men of Cambridge stood aloof, and soccer lost its big chance. The " Boston game" was on the order of Rugby. From it evolved football, American style.

Now, almost a century later, some venturesome men—rich, persuasive and many of them well schooled in the promotion of sport—have decided that if soccer entrances—and even maddens—such disparate peoples as Britons and Latvians, Brazilians and Germans, Africans and Afrikaners, it must then be a sport that can hold the attention of Americans, too. Early last summer these men decided to invest millions, and millions more over a period of years, in testing their belief. So in April two professional soccer leagues—the United Soccer Association (which originally called itself the North American Soccer League) and the National Professional Soccer League—will turn baseball diamonds into soccer pitches and try to attract crowds to a game that as yet most Americans know little of and care less about. If the entrepreneurs are right, if soccer should become something more than a game played by little clubs of ethnic persuasion longing for the ways of the old country, or by poorly coached high schools and colleges because soccer is inexpensive to equip (which is how basketball got its start), then the backers of the two leagues stand to make millions on their investment. The value of franchises will increase, as has happened in other professional sports, and gate receipts will provide formidable income. If they are wrong—well, it appears that there are ways to write these losses off.

Early last summer, when the idea began to take form, there was to have been but one league, and play was not to have started until the 1968 summer season, after careful preparation. Differences of opinion arose, about which embittered principals in both leagues are willing to talk only vaguely, and the split occurred. The Uniteds, who now include among their number such well-heeled sports impresarios as Gabe Paul, Lamar Hunt, Bill Ford, Roy Hofheinz and Jack Kent Cooke, say that they refused to consider a proffered Columbia Broadcasting System television contract, which, though it was announced as giving the NPSL 10 years of television exposure at $1 million for the first year and more on an upward sliding scale for the following years, also gives CBS the right to drop the whole enterprise at any time. ("It is a unilateral contract," says one United club owner, "in which CBS retains all the options. As I read it, CBS doesn't even have to put on one game.") The network denies that it offered the contract to United officials but concedes that it discussed it with them, then chose NPSL because it was further along in the hiring of coaches, players and stadiums. In any event, NPSL, which includes among its owners such pro football names as Dan Reeves, John Rooney and Bill Bidwill and baseball men like William Bartholomay of Atlanta and Jerry Hoffberger of Baltimore, grabbed the contract and stole a march on its rival by setting up plans for a regular 1967 season. United thereupon was driven to equally hurried hiring of foreign teams, in their entirety, to "represent" the United cities for a 1967 opening season instead of fielding its own teams a year later as planned.

At this point the whole deal began to have the look of chaos, and cooler heads on both sides considered the advantages of reconciliation. Some, like the forthright Hoffberger, owner of the Orioles and the Baltimore NPSL team, go so far as to say that an eventual rapprochement is "imperative" if professional soccer is to be viable. Although reconciliation seems far off just now, one recalls that even the National Football League and the American Football League got around to speaking to each other after a while.

Despite the split, there is optimism in both camps, boiling down to the fact that soccer is, in essence, such a splendid game and that it never has had enough money behind it for adequate presentation (promotion) to the American sports public. This optimism was intensified when the World Cup championship game between England and West Germany, the World Series of soccer, was televised live via satellite last July and attracted an audience of 10 million in the U.S., 400 million around the world. That proved Americans will watch soccer, if only for free. And attendance figures at some recent exhibition games proved they will even pay to see good soccer. A Brazil- Argentina game in Los Angeles last January was watched by 29,205. The Santos-Milan game at Yankee Stadium in September 1966 drew 41,598 spectators—a modern U.S. record. Benfica of Lisbon vs. Santos of Brazil at New York City's Downing Stadium attracted a capacity crowd of 28,000 last summer. Fans trying to get to it caused a major traffic jam on the Triborough Bridge.

Various owners in the two leagues give different estimates as to what their break-even point would be in terms of attendance, but 12,000 is a generally accepted figure.

"The formula for success in professional soccer," says John Allyn, who with his brother Arthur owns the Chicago White Sox and Chicago's United soccer team, the Mustangs, "is the same as for professional football: a limited number of games at a time when a maximum number of people are free to go to them. This is the main reason, I think, why pro football sells out the park every single Sunday. Obviously, you have to have a good game to start with. If baseball were played only on 20 Sundays in a 20-game season, you'd sell out the ball park every week, but baseball has become such an expensive game to operate that you can't manage on a 20-game season."

It will take good promotion to get even 12,000 fans out of the living room and into the soccer stands, but now, for the first time, American soccer is going to get just that. About all the promotion the sport ever had previously was provided by the long-impoverished United States Soccer Football Association, which, operating on a budget as meager as $75,000 a year—even less, according to some sources—is the governing body of U.S. amateur and professional soccer. A dedicated little band, USSFA officials have been able to do substantially nothing on an income derived from fees like 40� a year for amateur registration and 10� for junior (18 and under) registration.

Now, though, USSFA is suddenly rich. It gave recognition to the United Soccer Association, which meant that United was gifted automatically with recognition by FIFA ( F�d�ration Internationale de Football Association), world ruling body of the sport, of which USSFA is a member. In return for recognition, United has agreed that each of its 10 teams will pay USSFA an initial $25,000 for the franchise plus an annual 4% of the live gate and 10% of any television fees. In the British Isles a team pays 10 guineas a year ($29) and has FIFA recognition, but in England there is no particular need to promote soccer. In the U.S. there is.

"That $25,000 fee," says John Allyn, "is going back into building soccer. The whole arrangement means nothing to us from a cost standpoint, but it does mean $250,000 to $500,000 a year for USSFA."

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