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

June 12, 1994|By JON MORGAN

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.

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