Sports

A good kick in the grass

Hal Quinn September 3 1979
Sports

A good kick in the grass

Hal Quinn September 3 1979

A good kick in the grass

Sports

Hal Quinn

Keith Eddy, former international soccer star in England, stood in the sun in Largo, Florida, this spring watching a handful of hopefuls trying out for the Toronto Blizzard, the newly formed entry into the North American Soccer League (NASL). As yet another shot sailed yards wide of the goal, he muttered, “Rubbish. Bloody rubbish.”

His reaction, and expression, were common to devotees of the world’s most popular sport as they witnessed its transplant to North America. For the initiated, weaned on Stanley Matthews, George Best, Eusebio, Pelé, the introduction of “football” to the New World was like Canadians trying to teach the Soviets how to play hockey ... in 1945.

“In my first game over here at San Diego in 1976,” says Eddy, now coach of the Blizzard, “we waited around for the start of the game for 20 minutes. I couldn’t believe the prancing cheerleaders, let alone that we were waiting for a helicopter to land at midfield. I thought it might be some dignitary, but when a guy in a gorilla outfit finally hopped out, I said to the coach, ‘If this is America, then you can stuff it.’ ”

But in a dozen years, thanks to millions of dollars directed toward the likes of Pelé, market research and old-fash-

ioned Yankee salesmanship, soccer has gripped Canada and the U.S. and is threatening to take hold.

Soccer is the major sport in 135 countries, and it was inevitable that it would be proffered to the insatiable sporting appetite of North America. The appetizers were unappealing. The United Soccer Association imported entire teams from around the world and staged meaningless matches in 1967. The same year, the National Professional Soccer League tried blending imported stars and home-brewed talent with equal results. The two merged in ’68 to form the NASL which, in its various formats, has ranged from five, to eight, to 15, to 20, to 18, to its present 24-team alignment.

It wasn’t until the open-chequebook philosophy of major-league sport as practised in New York (by the football Jets, baseball Yankees and hockey Rangers) was applied to soccer that the experiment became credible. In 1975 the New York Cosmos bought a national institution, “the Pearl,” Pelé, from Brazil. “It was a million-dollar gamble that could have bombed,” says Cosmos’ marketing director, Dominick Flora. “Our first goal was to attract the media, and no one can ignore Pelé.” The scribes took the bait and the crowds followed the headlines and Pelé to the stadiums. As Bobby Hull’s million-dollar deal with Winnipeg gave the World Hockey Association an attraction and credibili-

ty, Pelé, the world’s best in his prime, gave it all to the NASL.

The audiences in the formative years were supposedly British, European and South American born. The game was part of their heritage. The franchises marketed the game with the ethnic audience in mind, until the league did a demographic study of the fans. The results were shocking, a harbinger for the 1980s in North American pro sport. Among other things, the study showed that the marketers were all wrong. Surely the ethnic population would support the game, however close it came to “rubbish” in their estimation. But the computer printed out: 32 per cent college educated; 11 per cent earn $35,000 or more; 36 per cent under 17 years of age; 85 per cent purchased sports equipment in the preceding 12 months. Translate—professional, active suburbanites and/or kids, and women. Soccer, it turns out, is second only to tennis in attracting female fans, fully 39 per cent. Thus it shouldn’t be surprising that in 1979 there are more girls registered to play soccer in New York state than boys to play football.

“Our prospectus on buying a NASL franchise is a 2 xk -inch-thick book,” says Blizzard President Paul Morton. Global Communications Ltd. purchased the Metros-Croatia in February for $1.6

million, renaming it the Blizzard. “The report covers everything, including the impact of such things as Proposition 13 in California.” The “tax revolt” there was seen as a bellwether for cutbacks in school budgets that would affect high cost sports such as football and hockey. “Global wanted a TV and advertising vehicle with a future. Everything pointed to soccer as the sport of the ’80s,” says Morton. If any confirmation was needed, the so-so Blizzard attracted more than 30,000 fans to their playoff game against New York two weeks ago—for a game played at one o’clock on a Thursday afternoon.

The response has been even more dramatic in Vancouver, home of the soccer Whitecaps, the football Lions and the hockey Canucks. The Whitecaps outdraw the long-established Lions in their home park and easily surpass the hapless Canucks. Winners of their division of the NASL the past two years, the Whitecaps drew an average of more than 15,000 per game last year and more than 22,000 this year.

Vancouver Island and the mainland, long a magnet for immigrants from the British Isles, have a “football heritage” dating back to the 1920s. The Whitecaps are the beneficiary in the stands and on the field. More than 30 first-stringers in the NASL are from B.C., 13 B.C.ers are on the Whitecaps roster. Edmonton millionaire sports entrepreneur Peter Pocklington bought the Oakland franchise and moved it north this year. With the help of crossover fans from his Edmonton Oiler National Hockey League franchise, the Drillers attracted an average of more than 10,000 people to each home game at Commonwealth Stadium, a record for NASL expansion teams. Pocklington jumped on the bandwagon for $3.3 million. “It looked like a hell of

a business proposition,” he says, undaunted by the Drillers’ other NASL record this year—14 consecutive losses. “The purchase price was high, but I looked at it as a five-year deal. By 1984 the franchise will be worth $10 million.”

Any sport well played can be attractive. At the international level, to which the NASL aspires, soccer offers continuous action punctuated by often dazzling skill to a North American audience raised on the huddles and whistle-stops of football, commercial breaks and the new “dump-and-wait” style of hockey. To schools and amateur associations, it offers an inexpensive competitive sport without the dislocations and concussions of football and the toothless grins of hockey. And it is at the amateur level that the future of the NASL lies. The more than 19,000 boys and 3,500 girls under age 18, and the more than 20,000 under 10 players of the game in B.C., the

up to 18,000 registered amateur players in Alberta and like numbers in Ontario and across the country give substance to Morton’s and Pocklington’s shared dream of fielding 11 frontline Canadians.

This year, the 24 NASL teams had to start at least two native-born or naturalized Canadians or Americans. Next season it will be three, graduating to six by 1984. (“That may have to be slowed down,” Pocklington realistically admits.) But it is still a game of “stars,” exemplified by the league’s most successful franchise (averaging more than 40,000 fans per game), the New York Cosmos, who field top international household names Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia. The Los Angeles Aztecs have, arguably, the world’s best player today, Johan Cruyff, and Detroit Express has Trevor Francis. Yet among the stars are Canadians Robert Iarusci of the Washington Diplomats, Wes McLeod of Tampa Bay’s Rowdies, Dan Lenarduzzi with Vancouver and Americans Kyle Rote Jr., of Houston, who won the scoring championship in 1973, and Rick Davis of the Cosmos.

The dream of all-Canadian or allAmerican sides (U.S. players have taken to calling the NASL the NonAmerican Soccer League) is years away, just as the years of “rubbish” are past. A top English international player, Alan Ball, playing last week for Vancouver in the playoffs, says that when he first came over in 1977 his mates chided him for taking a “soccer vacation.” But, he says, “I was pleasantly surprised. The top NASL teams would rate about the middle of England’s second division [an assessment seconded by Blizzard’s British captain, Colin Franks] but the calibre is improving dramatically each year.”

Each franchise is forced, if not committed, to the development of native players and the majority should be around long enough to follow through. Aside from the usual exceptions, the NASL is well-financed having among its owners the Texas billionaire Lamar Hunt, Warner Communications, Lipton Tea, Madison Square Garden, Global Communications, Pocklington. As well, Molson’s Brewery is considering purchase of the Rochester team and moving it to Montreal. The American Broadcasting Corporation will televise nine games this year.

The Soccer Bowl will be played at Giants Stadium, home of the Cosmos, Sept. 8. A 76,000 sellout is expected. If the men spending the millions on the NASL have read the signs correctly, if soccer can add Canada and the U.S. to the countries it captivates, the game may turn out to be to football and hockey what it is double entendred to be in the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ fight song, “a kick in the