Contrary to what you might believe, theater broadcasts of sporting events did not arrive full-blown from the mouth of Muhammad Ali in the mid-1960s, nor do they date from the '40s when some of Joe Louis' bouts were transmitted. The phenomenon goes back quite a bit farther. Just 53 years ago this week, David Sarnoff wired up a number of arenas and lodge halls within a 700-mile radius of Jersey City, N.J. and beamed forth a radiocast of the Dempsey-Carpentier fight that drew more than 200,000 listeners at a couple of dollars a ticket.
This Sunday one of the most ambitious U.S. theater broadcasting ventures ever will wind up with the televising of the championship World Cup soccer game from Munich, and it is almost as big a step into the uncertain as Sarnoff took. For three weeks the Cup games have been shown in 45 U.S. and Canadian cities, with tickets between $5 and $20. By the time the winner is decided, about 700.000 North American fans will have paid to see the spectacle.
The problem with theater telecasts is that to succeed on a national level, passions must be aroused. Certain fights can do it and a Super Bowl game might. The Indianapolis 500 has been less than successful. The present World Cup matches have done fairly well, though not up to the expectations of the promoters. Magna Verde Productions of New York. Rene Anselmo, the man who put the show together, had hoped to draw more people into theaters to see the games than would view them in person in Germany—an estimated two million.
"I thought we would do $10 million in business like rolling off a log," Anselmo said last week, "and the log I really had in mind was someplace between $10 and $15 million." Anselmo spent $3 million for the rights to the matches and by the time the bottom line is reached Magna Verde will have grossed about $7 million. (Estimated net: $1 million.)
Anselmo, 48, is the president of the New York-based Spanish International Network, which has 12 affiliated TV stations throughout the country. He is an outspoken man of Italian descent, the son of the postmaster of Quincy, Mass. Anselmo's Park Avenue offices resemble a hacienda and when he is irked he lets it be known with both feeling and wit. When Clay T. Whitehead was White House Director of Telecommunications Policy, he received a letter from Anselmo objecting to a plan to put more VHF stations on the air. "Your idea," Anselmo wrote, "comes upon us like a breath of fresh mustard gas."
Anselmo believed that this year the World Cup would hook Americans on soccer. His limited Cup telecasts four years ago were a surprising success, and since then, as he says, "I've been obsessed with how to get more Americans interested in soccer. How do I get the average American to try it?"
Magna Verde put better than $500,000 into TV commercials to promote the Cup showings, and increased newspaper advertisements "tenfold" over 1970. "Still, I look at the lines at the box offices at Madison Square Garden and don't see enough Americans," he observes glumly. Yet he is sanguine about the future. "If we have done one thing it is to get media response to soccer. Americans are now more aware of soccer than ever before and in time that will help a great deal."
Certain conditions over which Anselmo had no control did not help his Cup plans. The games started in midweek and there were two open weekend dates. And the wrong teams, from Anselmo's point of view, kept getting knocked out. After Italy and Scotland were eliminated, for instance, almost half the audience Anselmo figured might have been drawn by national passion in Philadelphia was gone. (While the Scots were still in it, however, they showed up in numbers all over, with bagpipes and kilts, national flags and the national beverage.) The continued advance of the Dutch, on the other hand, has left Anselmo and Magna Verde fiscally underwhelmed.
The technical problems were few. The games were played in nine different locations in Germany and the pictures went from the stadiums to a control room in Frankfurt to a ground station in Raisting, Germany before being bounced off the Atlantic satellite. The images came down in Etam, W. Va., went through ATT wires to New York, then on to the Hughes Sports Network and back through ATT to the theater and arena screens. At times Anselmo had reason to be irritated by the quality of the pictures. DOZ, the German network, was supposed to have 90 cameras at work, but it appeared at times that 89 of them were in the Black Forest photographing elves. The constant use of wide shots made it difficult to concentrate on individual players. Had the Germans employed more U.S. television techniques the video might have been more informative.
Soccer has not been a television sport in this country, and apparently is not about to be. CBS got a hint of that a few years ago by losing several million putting NASL games on the air. The San Jose Quakes of the NASL, currently the most dramatic U.S. soccer team, are averaging 15,000 a game compared to 7,800 for baseball's nearby Oakland A's and 9,100 for the San Francisco Giants. But the Quakes have resisted TV because, as General Manager Dick Berg says, "If people watch soccer on television now, they'll be like I was six months ago—bored silly. Television has to perfect some ideas for this sport, like how to handle the instant-replay concept in a game that never stops. On television soccer just looks like a bunch of guys chasing a big balloon around."