The Detroit Tigers were lounging around the pool at the Holiday Inn in Lakeland, Fla. one recent sun-washed afternoon, playing backgammon and otherwise soaking up the gentle essence of spring training, when one of the players looked up from his board and said, "What's that?"
Across a dusty field came a group of perspiring young men in the blue and orange Tiger colors—but wearing soccer shirts and shorts, not baseball uniforms.
"Oh, that's the Express," said another of the Tigers.
"The Detroit Express. New soccer team in town. They're training here and staying at the motel."
"They get spring training, too?" said the first player. "I'll be damned."
Precisely. Spring training is one measure of how far the North American Soccer League has come—and how far it is reaching—as it prepares to open its 12th season next week. Not only does the league now have its own Grapefruit Circuit, with teams from Toronto, Detroit and Minnesota headquartered in Florida, but it also has teams training abroad. The NASL champion Cosmos spent a few weeks in the Caribbean. So did Chicago. Philadelphia was off in Ireland.
Under indefatigable Commissioner Phil Woosnam, the NASL has also added franchises in Detroit, Memphis, Philadelphia, Colorado, Houston and New England, which brings the league to the bursting point with 24 teams. Put that together with the relocation of four misfires from last year—Connecticut to Oakland, Hawaii to Tulsa, St. Louis to Anaheim, and Las Vegas to San Diego—plus a thorough realignment of the teams into two conferences of three divisions each and you have an NASL (pronounced "nasal" by league types) with a distinctly new look. And the look, as everybody gets down to business, is, by and large, glowing. But that could fade as fast as a quickie Florida tan.
This will be a watershed year for pro soccer in the U.S. Last season, the sport got heavy attention from newspapers and television as a number of huge crowds filled stadiums from one coast to the other. At the forefront of all this was Pelè. Some soccer people will argue that the effect of Pelè-the-player on the league's growth has been exaggerated, that the game's time had simply come. That may be. But Pelè is retired now, gone to the heaven of Warner Communications as an "ambassador" after turning down $10 million to play two more seasons for the Cosmos. The question is: Will the ball keep rolling without him?
In 1977 the NASL broke all its attendance records, drawing 70,000-plus crowds to the New Jersey Meadowlands to see Pelè and the Cosmos, and filling stadia in Seattle, Minnesota, San Jose and Dallas. For 1978, season-ticket sales are up almost everywhere. At this time last year, the Cosmos had sold barely 3,000 season tickets; this year they have sold 18,000. San Jose has already sold 12,000, and Minnesota 11,000.
The Great American Hoopla Machine, under lease to the NASL, is cranked up to deliver yet another season of the kind of living-color promotions that helped peddle the sport in such cities as Tampa, Dallas and Minneapolis. This year the Washington Diplomats feature a Zulu tribesman, Andries (Six Lights) Maseko, a winger who, following an ancient ritual, is said to shave his head before games. In Oakland, the Stompers, whose name has to do with crushing grapes for wine, will have a chimpanzee swinging on the goalposts, plus cheerleaders called the Corkpoppers.
Optimism is the order of the day, though a few people around the league have misgivings. The Minnesota Kicks' coach and president, Freddie Goodwin, says, "Expansion was too fast, too big. I wish it could have been done slower. It puts such a burden on the American player pool, the established teams and scheduling that it's dangerous." It should be remembered, too, that last year only Minnesota and Seattle finished in the black, and that only half the 18 teams averaged better than 10,000 in home attendance.
The American Soccer League, the poor relation of the NASL, has added two teams for a total of 10. But Commissioner Bob Cousy is nevertheless cautious. "Even our attendance was up last year, and I credit that to a spillover of interest in Pelè," he says. "But I wonder honestly if things aren't going to level off and even slip back a bit."
With 24 NASL teams nosing through England for talent during the winter, the English Football League put a temporary freeze on player transfers. English teams are now demanding, and getting, twice as much money for players as they did last year. The Cosmos purchased Winger Dennis Tueart of Manchester City for close to $500,000, a record for an English player.
In last winter's NFL-style draft, NASL teams signed 65 U.S. collegians and drafted 16 high schoolers because they are obliged to carry additional American players. League rules require that two Americans must start this season—the number was one last year and will be three in 1980.
A fair answer to the question of whether the ball will keep rolling is a resounding "probably." Chicago president Give Toye, the man who signed Pelè and Franz Beckenbauer to the Cosmos, says, "We'll miss Pelè in an emotional sort of way, but his going will have no effect on soccer now." Shep Messing, who played goal for the Cosmos and signed this year with Oakland, says, "Pelè gave the Cosmos credibility, the Cosmos gave it to the league, and now we're on our own. I'm not even afraid to leave New York. It's simply happening."
Happening it may be, but not simply. In the NASL offices in New York, Commissioner Woosnam reflected on the mounds of paper work that now engulf him. The league staff, he noted, numbers 27 as compared to three just a few years ago. "I feel like Pete Rozelle must have in the early '60s," he sighed. "It's like riding a rocket ship. If Pelè delivered the media to us, we must keep it coming.
"Our absolute priority is a network television contract for a Game of the Week by 1979 and all three networks on board by 1980." This season TVS, an independent, will screen six regular-season games nationally, plus two playoffs and Soccer Bowl '78 on Aug. 27.
"Expansion and relocation was done with just one thing in mind," says Minnesota's Goodwin, "to cover the major TV markets." The league now resembles a Roone Arledge market-share dream. Each team will play a 30-game schedule, up four from last season, and 16 teams will qualify for postseason berths, guaranteeing American-style playoff agony.
For reasons that may have something to do with the dynamics of the business, many of the new NASL franchises are hooked into pop music. Peter Frampton, Paul Simon, Mick Jagger and Rick Wake-man are four of the 17 owners of the Philadelphia Fury—and they all have real money in the enterprise. Jim Guericio, a half owner of the Colorado Caribou, is a rock-music producer and ex-manager of the group Chicago. Elton John still lends his name to the L.A. Aztecs, and in Oakland, a Stomper minority owner, rock impresario Bill Graham, has visions: "We'll have Linda Ronstadt singing the national anthem, and I'll back her up on accordion."
Frank Barsalona, one of rock's top talent agents and a spokesman for the Fury, says, "Soccer is where rock people can be directly involved, and the demographics are the same, entertainment for the 14-to-35 age group. But we're not going to put on rock extravaganzas at halftime or anything. This is a business. Lipton owns the New England franchise and they're not going to give away tea bags up there."
But when Rochester, one of the league's poorest-drawing teams, plays in Philadelphia in midseason, and the Rolling Stones just happen to be appearing across the way—the group's manager, Peter Rodgers, happens to be another of the Fury owners—well, Mick Jagger and friends might just come over to watch the game, swelling attendance into the fainting category, and, well, that's soccer biz, folks.
While fast footwork will probably sustain soccer until network TV arrives, the sport may well succeed for another reason. Soccer is a game that is captivating the young. John Brodie, the ex-49er quarterback, and former Raider Defensive End Ben Davidson are minority owners of the Stompers. "I can't get my son to a football game," says Brodie, "but he never misses soccer. He knows the players, the tactics, the moves—the way I used to know football. I wanted to get into it while the sport was young and vital."
Young and vital. Today spring training and rock stars. Tomorrow? Network TV and the world.