Rodney Marsh, a Tampa Bay Rowdies forward, moved the ball cautiously past midfield one humid night recently, watching and waiting. He saw the opening amid the L.A. Aztecs' defenders and booted a perfectly timed and placed pass to the toe of Striker Derek Smethurst, who faked Goalkeeper Bob Rigby and fired in a low shot for the score.
Then Marsh, his narrow face split by a wide grin, turned delightedly on his heels toward his bench and applauded, shyly and delicately, his own picture-perfect pass and the team's goal.
Like Marsh, the North American Soccer League has been congratulating itself of late, and why not? Now in its 10th year, the league is enjoying its best season at the gate as a result of a successful mixture of show-biz savvy and marketing techniques worthy of a new detergent. Helped by two pro football-size crowds—62,394 and 57,191—for consecutive Cosmos games in June, NASL attendance is up 29% over last year, 2,718,357 fans having passed through the turnstiles. Franchises in Bloomington, Minn., Seattle, Tampa, San Jose and Dallas have a chance to finish the season in the black for the first time.
Who exactly is filling the stands around the country? Who are these newly converted soccer fans? And why are they turning out in ever-increasing numbers? If you think that a typical NASL fan is of European or South American descent and goes to a soccer match fondly recalling the game in the Old Country, you are dead wrong. The Minnesota Kicks, whose average home attendance of 32,133 is second only to the league-leading 33,024 of the star-studded Cosmos, show a very different fan profile. The new American soccer crowd is not ethnic; it is white, middle- and upper-middle class, younger than an NFL crowd (averaging 18 to 25), more than half college educated, almost half women and a third children under 14. Tampa and Dallas closely conform to this profile, and in Dallas more than a third of the average crowd of 16,500 earns in excess of $25,000 a year.
Dick Berg, the general manager of the Dallas Tornado, one of the two remaining original NASL franchises, offers some of the reasons for this welcome turn of events. "You can market all you want," he says, "but sports must follow people's moods, not create them. Soccer is the 'now' sport for a variety of timely reasons.
"First, soccer is an anti-Establishment game. It is not sanctified like the NFL or specialized like the NBA. Its individual play and constant movement are anticorporate, and we're attracting the young adults who grew up in the '60s, the people who were then anti- Vietnam, had longer hair and listened to different music. They spend dollars now, and soccer has attracted them.
"Like tennis, soccer has a great deal of individual creativity, which young adults identify with these days. The game has a fluid movement that fits the times. Like physical fitness, it's an idea that has seized the national imagination.
"Normal folks can identify with soccer stars, too. You don't have to be 7'3" or weigh 230 pounds to play it, so people come to watch 'their' players.
"And 49% of our paying customers are female. I don't think a sport will make it big again if women don't like it."
Scenes around the league confirm Berg's pitch. In Minneapolis, pregame tailgate parties in the free parking lots are the rage. In Tampa, Rodney Marsh and the rest of the Rowdies appear at a local restaurant after games to hoist one with their "Fannies" and autograph T shirts, matchbooks and even, in one case, a white poodle. In Dallas, young fans can attend parties at a local hotel to chat with players and coaches, boogie with their favorite star and talk to the most famous homegrown player, Kyle Rote (he's dropped the Jr.). Dallas Coach Al Miller says, "I hope the sport stays on a human scale like this—we need heroes, not gods."