Rodney Marsh, a Tampa Bay Rowdies forward, moved the ball cautiously past midfield one humid night recently, watching and waiting. He saw the opening amid the L.A. Aztecs' defenders and booted a perfectly timed and placed pass to the toe of Striker Derek Smethurst, who faked Goalkeeper Bob Rigby and fired in a low shot for the score.
Then Marsh, his narrow face split by a wide grin, turned delightedly on his heels toward his bench and applauded, shyly and delicately, his own picture-perfect pass and the team's goal.
Like Marsh, the North American Soccer League has been congratulating itself of late, and why not? Now in its 10th year, the league is enjoying its best season at the gate as a result of a successful mixture of show-biz savvy and marketing techniques worthy of a new detergent. Helped by two pro football-size crowds—62,394 and 57,191—for consecutive Cosmos games in June, NASL attendance is up 29% over last year, 2,718,357 fans having passed through the turnstiles. Franchises in Bloomington, Minn., Seattle, Tampa, San Jose and Dallas have a chance to finish the season in the black for the first time.
Who exactly is filling the stands around the country? Who are these newly converted soccer fans? And why are they turning out in ever-increasing numbers? If you think that a typical NASL fan is of European or South American descent and goes to a soccer match fondly recalling the game in the Old Country, you are dead wrong. The Minnesota Kicks, whose average home attendance of 32,133 is second only to the league-leading 33,024 of the star-studded Cosmos, show a very different fan profile. The new American soccer crowd is not ethnic; it is white, middle- and upper-middle class, younger than an NFL crowd (averaging 18 to 25), more than half college educated, almost half women and a third children under 14. Tampa and Dallas closely conform to this profile, and in Dallas more than a third of the average crowd of 16,500 earns in excess of $25,000 a year.
Dick Berg, the general manager of the Dallas Tornado, one of the two remaining original NASL franchises, offers some of the reasons for this welcome turn of events. "You can market all you want," he says, "but sports must follow people's moods, not create them. Soccer is the 'now' sport for a variety of timely reasons.
"First, soccer is an anti-Establishment game. It is not sanctified like the NFL or specialized like the NBA. Its individual play and constant movement are anticorporate, and we're attracting the young adults who grew up in the '60s, the people who were then anti-Vietnam, had longer hair and listened to different music. They spend dollars now, and soccer has attracted them.
"Like tennis, soccer has a great deal of individual creativity, which young adults identify with these days. The game has a fluid movement that fits the times. Like physical fitness, it's an idea that has seized the national imagination.
"Normal folks can identify with soccer stars, too. You don't have to be 7'3" or weigh 230 pounds to play it, so people come to watch 'their' players.
"And 49% of our paying customers are female. I don't think a sport will make it big again if women don't like it."
Scenes around the league confirm Berg's pitch. In Minneapolis, pregame tailgate parties in the free parking lots are the rage. In Tampa, Rodney Marsh and the rest of the Rowdies appear at a local restaurant after games to hoist one with their "Fannies" and autograph T shirts, matchbooks and even, in one case, a white poodle. In Dallas, young fans can attend parties at a local hotel to chat with players and coaches, boogie with their favorite star and talk to the most famous homegrown player, Kyle Rote (he's dropped the Jr.). Dallas Coach Al Miller says, "I hope the sport stays on a human scale like this—we need heroes, not gods."
Says Rowdies General Manager Beau Rogers, "The whole trick of marketing soccer in the U.S. is that it is fun. A little naughty, but basically family entertainment. In Minneapolis, Seattle, Dallas and here we keep it light, modest and active. Above all, it should be a joy to go to a game, not a civic duty."
To this end the game has been altered. Says Miller, "The league has made rules to encourage scoring. Americans like action and goals, and we're providing it. The most successful teams at the gate are usually the high-scoring, offensive sides. So we established the shoot-out to decide ties and scoreless games, and there's the point system, which encourages scoring for league standings even on the road and when you're losing.
"We don't want what happened to English soccer to happen here, where not losing becomes so important that all you do is go for the tie on the road and play so defensively at home that fans go to sleep."
The Vancouver Whitecaps, under their new coach, Tony Waiters, switched to an offense-oriented style of play this season and raised their average attendance to 11,385. Dallas, too, employs an all-out attack, and the Cosmos, of course, have Pelé (three hat tricks this season), Chinaglia and Beckenbauer, soccer's answer to the cast of A Bridge Too Far.
The youth soccer movement in the U.S. has contributed to the game's new popularity. Kids are attending NASL games in fast-growing numbers and bringing moms and dads. Says Terry Hanson, the Washington Diplomats' PR man, "I'm a Catholic, and I remember that the only time church was filled was when we kids paraded with candles and bow ties." The Rowdies capitalize on the youth movement by offering a special family ticket, admitting four for $10, and in Bloomington anyone under 18 can get a good seat for $2.25.
Dick Berg says, "Soccer is a low-overhead sport. When I was with the San Francisco 49ers our medical bills, insurance and all would run $300,000 some years. Last year the Tornado medical bill was $3,000, and we had a lot of injuries. Also, we can outfit a whole team for the price of helmets in the NFL."
The main reason that ticket prices are low in the NASL is that average player salaries are, too. But, like the crowds, salaries are increasing. Paul Child, a striker for the San Jose Earthquakes, says, "Five years ago the average player was getting $6,000; now we're up to maybe $20,000."
Rowdies owner, George Strawbridge Jr., says, "The worldwide player pool in soccer is so vast and so diversified that we could run the league just on South Africans or Caribbeans. We wouldn't even need Europe. And the competition to play is so great that salaries are going to stay relatively low. Also, we have no second league to inflate salaries, like the WHA or WFL or ABA."
Many experts challenge the quality of play in the NASL. After an exhibition match in San Jose, Calif. this year, Manager Eddie McCreadie of Chelsea, an English second-division side, intimated that the level of play here was about mediocre English second-division—or not very good. But it has improved immensely since 1973, with NASL teams holding their own in exhibitions against English, Italian, South American and Russian teams, and these events are great crowd pleasers, too. In Tampa, a preseason game against Zenit of Leningrad drew 42,000. And if the Cosmos, backed by the Warner Communications coffers, continue to lure world-class players away from Europe and Brazil, they could be one of the finest soccer teams in the world. They now have two World Cup team captains and next season may add a third, Johan Cruyff of Holland.
But, putting together a few teams of superstars is not what the NASL wants. Lamar Hunt, owner of the Dallas Tornado and one of the league's founders, says, "I was in a motel room in Tyler, Texas when Pelé played his first game in the States, and as I watched on television. I thought, 'Well, we've made it. It was worth the agony, the lean years.'
"You can take nothing away from what Pelé's done for the NASL, but I'm sure he'd agree with me when I say that Minnesota, averaging 33,000 in a city where they walked in cold against pro baseball and football, is the real success story. To make it in a major-sports market, not pushing anybody out of the way but filling a gap—that's what we're all about. That's success!"
Portland may be in love with its basketball Trail Blazers, but there's a lot left over for the Timbers.
Imports, such as George Best of Los Angeles via England, have raised the caliber of play.