Come April 7, soccer hopes to make its Great Leap Forward as a major sport offered on U.S. television. Well, if not exactly a leap, a significant hop. The campaign will start with a one-hour special to open the season, followed by nine live broadcasts of North American Soccer League games by ABC-TV. The network has paid the league, whose officials have long expressed an eagerness to mass-market the game, approximately $1.5 million for the rights to broadcast the games for two years. Both ABC-TV and the NASL are aware of the fact that, so far as tradition is involved, soccer may never be the same.
Soccer presents an unusual problem for a commercial network, as CBS discovered back in 1967 when it carried several games. Soccer is a game of continuous play, with breaks only for halftime and injuries, and such continuity hardly lends itself to the TV-dictated time-out. Yet the NASL already has indicated that it will not alter the rules on non-stop play; there will be no network man on hand to signal a commercial, as in football, basketball and hockey telecasts.
How does ABC propose to meet this commercial challenge?
?By appointing a designated invalid on each team to fake an injury when it's time to sell beer and automobiles? No, bad public relations if the viewers were to find out. Besides, the NASL has made it clear that it wouldn't go for such chicanery.
?By over-commercializing before and after the game and at halftime? No, ABC has other plans for that time, as we shall see.
?By sliding much smaller—let's say, 10-second—commercials into the action and reducing the chance of missing anything significant on the field? No, not enough time to please sponsors whose advertising is built around 30- and 60-second spots.
?By superimposing commercials in a corner of the screen over the action, as one local network tried with Dr Pepper? Well, maybe, according to ABC and the NASL. But again, the advertisers would have to revise their pitches.
ABC's solution will most likely be to do what CBS did and what most local networks and production companies do when they telecast soccer: work 30-second commercials into the flow of the game. In official ABC language, "The commercials will be attuned to the rhythms of the game."
"We hope that we don't miss too many significant goals," says Jim Spence, senior vice-president of ABC Sports. "If and when we do, we'll show them as soon as possible on replay. Sure, we'll listen to what the NASL has to say about cutting away and other technical advice. But it will be our people in the booth making the decisions."
To soccer fans, this is hardly a satisfactory solution, but it seems they will have to live with it. Last year, apparently in anticipation of the network contract, the NASL public-relations office kept tabs on the number of goals missed by Marvin Sugarman Productions, a New York-based company that taped and distributed 130 NASL games across the country. According to the NASL, Sugarman had a very low what might be called GVADNS—Goals the Viewing Audience Did Not See.