June 2010

TV And The Growth Of US Soccer

If we listed the ten biggest decisions that put soccer where it is today in the United States, somewhere in the middle would be televising the 1966 World Cup to American audiences. Television’s influence has not slowed down.

The golden days of U.S. soccer had been killed before the Great Depression. The American Soccer League existed in 1966 but was no more than a regional semi-professional circuit. The governing body of U.S. soccer was called the United States Soccer Football Association. Also, many Americans saw the game as a Communist pastime. Soccer then was like rugby today: Most of the participants were college students in the northeast or foreign-born adults.

That all changed after the 1966 World Cup was broadcast in the U.S.

Somebody somewhere made the decision to beam over several games for closed circuit audiences in Madison Square Garden and other venues. The New York Times took notice and provided coverage almost daily. The extra-time final between England and West Germany was broadcast live on NBC.

By the end of the tournament, Americans had watched another triumph over Germany, had heard English-speaking voices in the crowds, and had felt the excitement of a global sporting event that didn’t involve the U.S. American businessmen saw potential. Three groups of them explored starting a league in the U.S. Two succeeded.

The National Professional Soccer League and the United Soccer Association played separate seasons in 1967. The NPSL had a CBS contract but not the sanction of the U.S. federation. The USA had no national television carrier but federation blessing.

The financial difficulties were realized immediately, encouraging the two leagues to merge for the 1968 season as the North American Soccer League.

The difficulty in televising NASL games was no different than televising World Cup games—no natural breaks for commercials. The two simplest solutions were breaking away from the action and creating television timeouts on the field. The former produced embarrassment when goals were scored during commercials. The latter had referees asking players to fake injuries.

Making money off televised soccer was so hard that most games shown here didn’t even try. “Soccer Made in Germany” was a game edited to 60 minutes and shown on public broadcasting stations commercial free. Saturday Night Live once poked fun at this, spoofing a PBS pledge drive by threatening more soccer if people refused to donate.

That problem was part of the reason that ABC showed no games during the 1984 summer Olympics. The network preferred gymnastics, track, and equestrian events. Justifiably, the American soccer community gave the network hell about it. ABC claimed that commercials were a problem but so was the size of the audience willing to watch soccer.

The audience willing to attend games was equally troubling. The NASL folded the spring. People who consider the NASL a failure, though, ignore the millions of kids who took up soccer during that era. Few of those kids had ever seen a live professional soccer match, but they had watched it on ABC’s Wide World of Sports or seen highlights on ESPN, the young cable sports network.

TNT and NBC offered some innovation when they televised the 1990 World Cup from Mexico. They wrapped the action around a border and announced, “Uninterrupted coverage is being brought to you by” fill in the blank. Soon the scoreboard bug appeared. Viewers could always see the score right next to the logo of one of the broadcast sponsors.

In 1994, when the World Cup was here and France and England were not, televised games were caught by 44 percent of U.S. residents, more than any previous World Cup. That’s more notable considering that several of the matches were not shown live in the U.S. What was also notable were the interruptions to the opening two days of the tournament. ESPN reported that O.J. Simpson would be charged with two murders and then turned its cameras to broadcast a white Bronco carrying the murderer away from police.

Let’s forget what we saw during the 1998 World Cup. The U.S. lost and John Harkes gloated in front of any camera he could find. The bigger impact of television was that FIFA decided that games had to end quicker. Decades ago major international tournaments had abandoned the replay primarily due to television schedules. Looking for a vehicle to provide a winner, FIFA turned to the golden goal in 1998, preventing opportunities for teams to come back in overtime, tie the game, and force PKs.

In 2002 the games were played overnight for Americans. The media covered people who watched the games on television as much as it covered the games. The tournament made FIFA realize how important the European audience is to television ratings, thus FIFA’s revenue. They found that Europeans would leave work for the pubs to watch their teams, but they preferred work to watching other teams.

FIFA went back to a European time zone in 2006 and stayed there this year by playing in South Africa.

Could the impact of that 1966 decision be repeated this year?  ABC’s family, which includes ESPN and ESPN-fill-in-the-blank, is treating the World Cup like a month-long Super Bowl. We can watch games online, on television, on our phones, and, I think, they will mail the games to us. We will hear from antagonists complaining about having the games crammed down their throats. But it will be worth it. Finally, the World Cup is getting the treatment it deserves from American television.

But what will be the impact?  My guess…it depends on two things: How the U.S. does and the entertainment value of the games.

If the U.S. does well, kids will want to play soccer. Kids will want to play soccer instead of other sports. When it comes time to specialize in one sport, teenagers will be more likely to choose soccer than they used to be because they see the potential for glory. As for the entertainment value, much of that depends on flopping and goal scoring. If we see tactless acting and over-the-top defending, the game will keep the reputation it has.

Of course, if we see a repeat of 1998, all bets are off.

Jamie Clary is the author of The First American Soccer Trivia Book which can be purchased here. He can be reached via Twitter at @soccerprofessor.

Jamie Clary