Soccer’s Journey onto American Television

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Soccer’s Journey onto American Television
Jun 21, 2019

Chapter I: The 1960s

Across the world, television has enjoyed a long, fruitful relationship with sports, dating back to its experimental origins in the 1920s and 1930s. Sports programming such as boxing, college football and especially baseball would prove valuable in sustaining the medium through its turbulent early stages. It would take some time, however, before the other football would make its way onto American television — and still more time for it to become a mainstay on par with other mainstream sports.

The first known soccer telecast in the United States was 1961’s F.A. Cup Final between Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City, shown on a two-week delay on ABC’s venerable Wide World of Sports anthology program, with Jim McKay serving as host. Afterward, soccer virtually vanished from the radar, reappearing only with the 1966 World Cup in England.

With the dawning of the space age, and the launching of satellites capable of linking programming from a continent away, there came new possibilities for televised sports. NBC snatched the rights to the final, as England beat West Germany, 4-2, on its home turf for its only World Cup to date. As a stark reminder of soccer’s place on the sports totem pole in America at the time, NBC showed the pre-eminent sporting event in the world as a lead-in to that Saturday’s Major League Baseball regular season Game of the Week.

However, ratings for the final were encouraging enough for two separate leagues to try and crack the American market in 1967 — the National Professional Soccer League and the United Soccer Association. While the U.S enjoyed the official backing of FIFA, the NPSL received financial support by landing a contract with CBS for its inaugural season.

The partnership was a disaster from the start, laying the groundwork for the broken relationship between the world’s game and America’s fans for decades to come.

CBS’ strategy for the league reflected their ignorance toward the “foreign” game, as commercials consisted mainly of puns centered around the word “kick” (MLS’ early marketing would fall into the same trap in the late 1990s). If that weren’t bad enough, the network used fouls and other breaks in the action as an opportunity to show commercials — even if it meant creating breaks in the action. Referee Peter Rhoades admitted that he called 11 unnecessary fouls in a game between Toronto and Pittsburgh, under duress from the struggling league.

The broadcasting duo of Jack Whitaker — an American football announcer — and recently-retired Tottenham legend Danny Blanchflower made for an awkward pairing, as Blanchflower couldn’t hold back from criticizing the NPSL’s inferior quality of play. With little to no excitement from television broadcasts or in-person attendance, both of which started low and took a nosedive week-over-week, the league fell apart after only one season.

The following year, both the NPSL and U.S. would merge into the North American Soccer League, with only 17 of the combined 22 teams standing. Miraculously, CBS hung on for the new league’s first season, even replacing Blanchflower as commentator with Mario Machado from the network’s Los Angeles affiliate KHJ-TV (now KCBS). Ratings never improved, however, which led to the end of CBS’ interest in soccer. Every team posted a loss in the millions, and by season’s end, another 12 folded.

The severely weakened NASL, now a semi-pro outfit, would struggle on in the sports periphery until a pair of Israeli record producers, a multibillionaire media executive, and a Brazilian superstar on the verge of retirement came together and changed everything.

Chapter II: The Early 1970s

By the start of the 1970s, investors’ pie-in-the-sky hopes for soccer to become America’s next big sport had been dashed. As owners and networks bailed from the now unified North American Soccer League, only five teams remained from the original 17, and barely scraped by the following years as a semi-professional league. In the summer of 1970, with the domestic league falling apart, America practically drew its blinds as the sport’s biggest spectacle took place south of its border.

While most of the world saw the 1970 Mexico World Cup televised live and in color for the first time, the United States was locked out. New York-based Magnaverde Productions bought the American television rights to the 1970-78 World Cups, but could not find a broadcast partner. Despite the best efforts of company president Rene Anselmo, none of the big three broadcast networks were willing to show a package of games from the 1970 World Cup — live, delayed or otherwise.

Magnaverde decided to go it alone, and for three straight World Cups produced a closed-circuit telecast to show at theaters and large screens across the country, which fans could pay upwards of $10-$20 to see. This formula had already proven lucrative with boxing matches and the Indianapolis 500, but was highly unpopular with the American soccer community, who generally lashed out at the exorbitant ticket prices.

Still, for those who could afford it, it was the only option, and the 1970 showings made Magnaverde enough of a profit that they continued with the closed-circuit route for 1974 and 1978 — both times neglecting to pursue any linear television deal.

Meanwhile, the NASL limped along in the shadow of America’s established sports over the early 1970s, almost entirely out of the glare of the television spotlight. Teams played at dilapidated grounds such as New York’s Downing Stadium, a crumbling facility on Randall’s Island with more shards of broken glass in the pitch than blades of grass.

The team that called Downing Stadium home, the New York Cosmos, would single-handedly change the fortunes of American soccer with one transfer.

Under the ownership of Warner Communications, the Cosmos had more financial backing than any other NASL club, and in a move that would foreshadow the rise of super-teams such as Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, the Cosmos signed Pele to a $1.4 million contract — an exorbitant sum for the times.

Pele fever caught on from the second the news broke, and the Hunt Room of the 21 Club filled to capacity during his introductory new conference. CBS, mostly absent from soccer since the NPSL disaster (apart from showing the 1974 NASL playoffs as a one-off), showcased Pele’s first match on American soil — that soil being the poorly-kept pitch at Randall’s Island, which needed to be spray-painted green to make it look respectable for the cameras. Pele came off the bench to score the equalizing goal in a 2-2 draw with the Dallas Tornado, officially marking the start of soccer’s first renaissance in the United States.

The following season, the NASL reached a television deal for the first time since its second season of existence. The league reached out for more foreign talent, boosting the quality of play to levels that could stand up to the top European leagues. For a while, Warner’s gamble looked to have paid off. Maybe those pie-in-the-sky dreams would come true after all.

But Pele wouldn’t stick around forever. And as it turned out, neither would the North American Soccer League.

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