BALTIMORE'S heavy hitters are making a grave mistake by putting all their eggs in one basket in pursuit of a National Football League team.
Most Baltimoreans want football back, deserve football back and might get it back. If the NFL solves its labor problems and gets around to expansion, if Baltimore isn't pushed aside by new cities, if a new stadium can be built in this economy. If, if, if . . .
The powers that be in Baltimore would be much better off if they threw at least some of their weight, interest and money behind a professional soccer team, and I don't mean the Spirit, although this innovative but essentially minor-league form of soccer deserves continuing support -- indoors, in the winter.
I mean a professional, outdoor soccer team.
Despite its tentative reception in this country, soccer remains the world's most popular sport.
And it doesn't take a crystal ball to see that all the pieces are falling into place for real futbol to take hold of the American imagination -- and pocketbook -- on the professional level.
Given the recession and the caution of sports moguls in the face of the nightmarish prospects for their overpaid, oversold sports today, it is still hard to see exactly how it will happen.
But the steadily rising popularity of soccer among American youth, the effective creation of a strong development program in American colleges -- Loyola College is nationally ranked this fall -- and clubs and the advent of the World Cup at nine cities across the United States in 1994 create a promising context for its eventual arrival as the fifth major professional sport in this country.
All that's needed now is for a small handful of successful entrepreneurs to step forward and take a chance. Or, if the right kind of community organization emerged, a Green Bay-like organization of small investors might work.
For one thing, soccer salaries are still reasonable, and likely to stay that way for a while. Second, the quality of soccer in the U.S. has grown by leaps and bounds (the U.S. women's team, many may forget, is a world champion). Third, many top players in the former Soviet bloc are dying to find a job in the West. In war-ridden Yugoslavia, Red Star Belgrade, European club and intercontinental champion in 1991, is selling its players. Finally, Baltimore has a suitable facility for serious soccer -- Memorial Stadium.
Many will say soccer failed before, in the early '70s. It did, but that was a whole -- and very different -- generation ago. In the last 10 years, soccer has become one of the most popular sports in the country, and Maryland ranks in the top 10 in the number of programs and players -- of both sexes. According to the Soccer Industry Council of America, the number of high schools with boys' soccer teams has risen from about 4,000 in 1983 to nearly 7,000 today; the number of girls' teams from 2,000 to 4,500. The number of participants at the high school level has increased from 150,000 to 228,000 boys and from 50,000 to 122,000 girls.
Many will point out that the Maryland Bays, a very successful team on the field in five years, could not draw sufficient support during a run from 1987 to 1991. But the team played with several handicaps: on a small field in Columbia and without any serious coverage from The Sun and Washington Post. (Both barely cover soccer.) A Baltimore -- or Washington -- soccer team needs big-city promotion and, perhaps, the push and publicity that will come with the World Cup.
Many say soccer is not exciting enough, at least for Americans, accustomed as they are to 42-35 football scores and 127-120 basketball games. That's fair comment, but outdated.
As millions of American kids who now play soccer (a far less expensive and injury-plagued sport than football) grow older, more and more will appreciate the finesse and skill of the 1-0 and 2-1 games that enthrall the rest of the world.
U.S. Soccer Federation officials expressed serious interest in playing an exhibition game in Baltimore last year. City officials supported the effort, but the game was delayed for at least a year because of a scheduling conflict. If a 1993 game takes place, it will, I submit, show that Baltimore, with its large populations of European background, and hundreds of soccer teams for all ages, would support big-time, outdoor soccer.
Let's face it: Baltimore has become a second-rank city when it comes to professional sports. It's not necessarily justified, given the enthusiasm for the Orioles and the malicious theft of the Colts. The reasons are plain enough: the city's location so close to larger (New York and Philadelphia) or more prestigious cities (Washington), its relatively low rank as an advertising market, a lack of facilities and the tight fists of its well-heeled elite.
With the success of Camden Yards, the city has acquired a nationally recognized model of an appropriate marriage between professional sports and urban revival. Baltimore also has a few new entrepreneurs who have the money to step forward and put Baltimore back on the map in professional sports.
With the right move, and city-state leadership that was lacking when 27 cities -- but not Baltimore -- submitted bids for World Cup games, Baltimore could get in on the ground floor of another major league. And without using the public treasury to build a huge new stadium.
Frederic B. Hill, a quarterback in high school and a former professional baseball player, coached soccer in the Mount Washington and Towson soccer programs from 1980 to 1990.