Pro soccer may soon score big as an American sport
New York — Phil Woosnam of the North American Soccer League may not have a greater interest than any other pro commissioner in seeing his sport succeed, but he certainly comes by his missionary zeal naturally. For unlike the chief executives in baseball, basketball, football, and hockey, he moved across an ocean to help launch his game on this continent.
In 1967 the neat, affable Welshman relocated his family in Atlanta to become the player-coach of that city's pro soccer franchise, the Chiefs. The next year saw Woosnam lead the team to the NASL's first championship (the league was merged from two defunct circuits) and earn Coach of the Year honors.
The achievement came as only a mild surprise to those familiar with his career as a tenacious international player and later as a staff coach with the English Football Association. Certainly no one ever questioned his brilliance off the field, not when he held an honors degree in physics and math from the University of North Wales (Bangor).
Clearly, here was a man with the intelligence and energy to chart the course of a pioneering league. Thus in 1969, the NASL made Woosnam its executive director, and two years later he became commissioner.
Today, he heads up the NASL's 39-person headquarters office in midtown Manhattan, besides traveling some 200,000 miles a year to keep track of 24 franchises. In 1972 there were only eight franchises, and the average per game attendance was just 5,338. The latter figure has risen now to nearly 15,000, with much bigger turnouts, of course, for major events such as Sunday's upcoming Soccer Bowl championship game in Washington, D.C., between the New York Cosmos and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
Despite progress, however, the league faces continuing challenges. Woosnam addressed himself to these challenges and assessed the NASL's current position in the following exclusive interview:
Is soccer going to be "the sport of the 1980s" as pro football was the sport of the '60s?
I definitely believe it will be, although things really started in the '70s in two respects. The number of participants, boys and girls, increased fantastically, and the image of the professional game changed tremendously with the arrival of Pele in 1975. For the last three or four years we've received very positive media [coverage], and as a result of that, Madison Avenue has responded strongly, with major corporations involved both as sponsors and in an ownership capacity.
The league's current average attendance is about 15,000 per game, but by the end of the '80s I can see that growing to 40 or 50,000, which would make the NASL the best attended soccer league in the world. Also by the end of the decade I think the United States will have produced a national team and World Cup team that will be an international power. This will develop the other vital element in the sport, which is nationalism.
Was there ever a point when you didn't think pro soccer would succeed?
No. The only question I had was whether those who invested in the pro game would have the finances and determination to stick it out. Pro football didn't come into its own until the '60s even though it dates back to 1920. Our people have gone through 13 years of pioneering, and there are probably another five to go yet. There are still financial losses being incurred by our clubs, so we have to be careful in going forth at this point. We can't allow other people to force us forward too quickly.
Some people may have resisted soccer because they think it's being grafted onto the American sports scene. Is there anything to this?
Many of them probably haven't been near enough to the game to appreciate its emotion and artistry. Lots of people won't take the plunge. They're reluctant to go and watch a sport in which they aren't knowledgeable enough to form opinions. But soccer is a very open, obvious game with no complicated rules. You can attend just two or three games and suddenly feel like an expert.
Is there something that makes one community more suited to pro soccer than another?
Well, if there's no other major league team in town during the same time, sports fans will attach themselves to the one that comes along, which has been the case in cities like Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Vancouver, and Washington. Teams in non-baseball cities get better media attention too. Of course, the potential in the major markets is probably greater, but the competition is tougher, so it takes a heavy operation, like the New York Cosmos have, to succeed.
By attracting several crowds of 70,000 to the Meadowlands, have the Cosmos given others in the league an inflated sense of prosperity?
No, because I think everyone else has been realistic. What the Cosmos have done is give the other franchises new goals.
The NASL schedule coincides with the baseball season. Has the league gone head-to- head with the wrong sport?
No. That's the right time of year. The decision has nothing to do with the competition, because there's always going to be competition no matter when you play. Soccer is a two- hour sport with continuous action and it's just got to stand by itself.
Obviously it's better to play under good conditions. The problem with playing in the fall is that we would probably be sharing many stadiums with football franchises, and football causes so much wear and tear to the field that it would be destroyed from a soccer point of view.
Is the soccer audience distinct from that of other sports?
Yes, in the sense that we attract a lot of families and have a very high female attendance, about 38 percent on the average. And in terms of participation, you're dealing with a different breed than in football and basketball. The majority of soccer players are 140 to 180 pounds and between 5 ft. 6 in. and six feet.
The NASL has not done particularly well on national television. What's the league's TV outlook during the '80s?
I think by the end of the decade we'll be in a very strong television position. Right now we're getting excellent results on local TV -- the ratings are up 40 percent over last year -- but we may be a little early for national television. The national ratings are standing still.
This country is so big, 200 million people haven't yet been educated to the sport and the media isn't carrying the message to the non- NASL cities. If you don't have a franchise in Cleveland, say, how much soccer coverage can you expect there?
So how do you attract the national following that translates into major TV exposure?
Just more education, and then it will all happen. Continued increases in the local ratings and attendance at our games are important, because every statistic that applies to the sport is going in a positive direction except the national ratings.
Right now, I don't think someone new to soccer is going to sit down for 2 1/2 hours in the middle of the summer to watch a game on TV. This may be the reason why the indoor game [as played by 10 NASL teams last season] could play an important role in educating the public. During the winter, people will stay indoors and switch on indoor soccer.
Some people criticize the NASL for not using enough North American players. Are efforts to Americanize the league progressing satisfactorily?
We'd all like to go faster, yet you don't become world class overnight, and right now the public is more into the quality of the game than the nationalism. I think the 15-year-olds in this country are as good as they are anywhere in the world. The difference is, in other countries the top 15-year-olds get professional coaching or play as apprentice professionals, while in the United States a player often doesn't turn pro until after college at 21 or 22.
What's the next step in Americanization?
This was the first year that three North Americans [including naturalized citizens] had to be on the field at all times [in the past, league rules required two], so presumably we'll stay at three next year. Then it becomes a judgment call, because the public is becoming very sophisticated. I've already had the experience of seeing the American public destroy an American player who got thrown in the deep end and wound up getting blamed for his team not doing well. So that's consideration.
As soon as it can be afforded, we need a reserve team structure to accelerate the development of American players. Indoor soccer is going to play a valuable role as well, since the free-wheeling substitution rules allow everyone to play.
The number of foreigners will be diminished over the years, I'm sure of that, but probably not to the point where there will be no foreigners. After all, if we intend to become the No. 1 soccer league in the world, I think we can always benefit from having the great players, the Peles, the Johan Cruyffs, and the Franz Beckenbauers.