Can Soccer Go Big League in the U.S.?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

From his days in the youth leagues of Highlandtown to his successful pro and college coaching career, Pete Caringi has always dreamed of the big leagues. Not just for himself, but for his sport.

Mr. Caringi played for the defunct North American Soccer League and coached the defunct Maryland Bays of the nearly defunct American Professional Soccer League. Through the years, he has learned to be wary of predictions that soccer is about to join baseball, football, basketball and hockey among America's major leagues.

"It was proven back in the 1970s that people would go out and watch soccer. Back then there was talk that in 10 years all the kids playing would grow up and want to watch it. Now, 20 years have gone by, and we're starting all over again," said Caringi, soccer coach at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

With the U.S. debut of the World Cup, soccer backers such as Mr. Caringi are again confronting the perplexing fact that the world's most popular sport is a commercial flop in the United States. Efforts to establish leagues have failed, fans have proven fickle, and sponsors have shown little interest in underwriting a sport more popular in Bulgaria than Peoria.

A new U.S. league is in the works, designed to capitalize on the attention of the World Cup, a monthlong series of games between the teams of 24 nations. Locations of the 12 teams for the new professional league are to be announced Wednesday. But even with the World Cup, which begin Friday at nine U.S. sites (including Washington) and will draw heavy media coverage, there is reason to doubt the future of the American league.

Soccer seems to have what it would take to succeed. It's got fast action, easy rules and Olympic-like nationalistic appeal. And participation in the sport is high: More than 16 million Americans say they play the game at least once a year, many of them dedicated youngsters who kick their way through weekends with parents cheering from the sidelines.

But so far, Americans have shown themselves far more willing to play the sport than to pay to watch it. "Something is not clicking," said Alan Friedman, publisher and editor of Team Marketing Report, a sports-marketing newsletter.

"Will the World Cup increase people's awareness of soccer? No question. But will they have an interest next time the World Cup is played, in another country? I don't know," Mr. Friedman said.

This is in stark contrast to most of the rest of the world, where soccer rules supreme, bringing to a halt governments and industries during major competitions. Suicides by fans of losing teams are not unheard of.

Bulgaria's Parliament postponed a no-confidence vote in the government for a day in November so that members could watch the final qualifying match against France. When Denmark upset Germany in the 1992 European championship, celebrations in the streets of Copenhagen were compared with those after the capital's liberation from Nazi occupation in 1945.

Sometimes the intensity takes a violent turn. In 1969, a playoff game between El Salvador and Honduras exasperated other tensions between the two countries sparked two weeks of fighting that left 2,000 dead and came to be known as the "Football War." More recently, British and Italian fans rioted at the 1985 European Championship in Brussels, leaving 39 dead.

The sport's governing body, the Federation Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, estimates that 1.5 billion people watched the 1990 World Cup on television, twice the viewership of last year's Super Bowl and three times that of the first moon landing in 1969. FIFA estimates that 2 billion will watch this year's series.

But, despite some pockets of success, attempts to establish pro leagues in the United States have mostly failed. The North American Soccer League paid good salaries to players and imported strong foreign talent -- including Brazilian legend Pele -- and drew respectable crowds.

The league, formed in 1968 by the merger of two other fledgling leagues, succumbed to infighting and economics in 1984.

The American Professional Soccer League at one time included the Maryland Bays, but the team folded, and the league has since shrunk to four U.S. teams and three in Canada.

"You've got too many other sports to contend with, and here you've got the bay and the ocean and mountains to contend with," said Edwin Hale, who owned the Baltimore Blast of the late Major Indoor Soccer League.

When he bought the team, he thought good management and marketing would tap the potential of soccer. He pared the franchises' annual losses from $1 million to $500,000, but had lost $3 million by the time the league folded in 1992 amid failing franchises.

Its one-time rival in indoor soccer, the National Professional Soccer League, survives, with a Baltimore entry, the Spirit.

"I could cut expenses, but you couldn't get sponsorships and people to come in. Even the union recognized that we had to cut costs. I thought maybe I could hold out for the World Cup, but I think that will be a flash and it will be a great event, but then it will go back to the way it was," Mr. Hale said.

Explanations for soccer's troubles in the United States include its paucity of scoring, foreign domination and poor leadership.

"We know we've not been a good soccer nation. Americans don't like to be for something we're not good at," said Lamar Hunt, owner of the National Football League's Kansas City Chiefs and a board member of World Cup '94.

He said the games don't televise well, with 22 players rapidly shooting a ball across a broad field with few breaks for the all-important sponsor's commercials. (The game is played in two 45-minute halves with no time-outs.)

And its popularity in immigrant neighborhoods has given soccer a foreign image in the United States, turning off native fans, he said.

Nonetheless, with proper leadership, "I think it's going to grow, and I think the game someday will be commercially viable in this country," said Mr. Hunt, who helped organize the North American Soccer League.

Bill Sage, the chief operating officer of the newly formed Major League Soccer, predicts that soccer's time has finally arrived in the New World.

The league plans to begin play next spring. Washington is among the cities under consideration for a franchise.

Several aspects of the league's operation are designed to avoid the pitfalls of past attempts. There will be strict cost controls, including a salary cap to, among other things, limit wealthier teams from stocking up on foreign superstars.

Although the teams will be managed locally, they -- and their player contracts -- will be owned by the league. Organizers hope this will eliminate infighting among team owners and provide for more coordinated marketing and sponsorships.

Goals may be even be enlarged and rules changed to encourage higher scoring.

"We think there's a niche for soccer, and in the long term we can be successful," said Mr. Sage, a former commissioner of the American Professional Soccer League.

Jerry Gorman, national director of the sports practice at the accounting and consulting firm of Ernst & Young, said: "I don't sense any groundswell for a new league.

"I think the World Cup is going to be very successful for what it wants to do, but we're asking too much to ask it to change Americans' habits. . . . There's only so much time, and at best it will only be fifth in the pecking order."

Mr. Caringi acknowledges the challenge but said he hopes the sport can finally beat the odds.

"Everyone in the soccer community is hopeful it will work this time," he said.

Jon Morgan covers sports business for The Sun.

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