It is said that we are able to see the correctness, validity and impact of our actions only after the moment we act had passed. This article looks back into the experience of the North American Soccer League. This is an attempt to revisit the rise and demise of the league.
A Brief History
The North American Soccer League (NASL) was established as a result of the merger of the United Soccer Association and the National Professional Soccer League. It was the culmination of the first modern attempts to create a truly national soccer league in the United States. The NASL even had franchise teams from Canada. Prior to its establishment, soccer competition in the United States was primarily on the semi-professional and amateur level.
The United Soccer Association (USA) was sanctioned by the Federation of International Footbal Association (FIFA) and established itself in twelve major cities across the United States. The National Professional Soccer League (NPSL), on the other hand, was not sanctioned by FIFA. It also did not abide by FIFA player transfer rules and had ten franchise teams. Fan interest for the two leagues was initially high and attendance was not bad for the first year.
The merger of the two leagues into the NASL, however, was an act of desperation. Fan interest had quickly faded, television ratings were terrible and the teams of the USA and NPSL had experienced massive financial losses. The disastrous start was such that only five teams of the original seventeen teams that started the NASL survived the first two seasons (Holroyd, 2005).
Teams folded but new franchises took their place in the league. The turning points in league history took place in the 1971 to 1975 period. The New York Cosmos joined the NASL in 1971 and won the league in 1972. The entry of the Cosmos established the league’s presence in a major market and brought greater media attention to the league. The following year saw the Philadelphia Atoms joining the league. The Atoms also won the league title in their inaugural season. The team was bannered by Kyle Rote Jr., son of a former star of the National Football League’s (NFL) New York Giants. Rote also won the league’s Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards. By 1974, the NASL had grown and have fifteen teams competing (Holroyd, 2005).
Before the start of the 1975 season, the New York Cosmos got Edson Arantes do Nascimento (more popularly known as Pelé) to play for the team. This move placed the league in the spotlight and significantly increased public interest in soccer in the United States. Pelé, of course, is considered possibly the greatest soccer player ever. He gained the moniker “King of Football” or simply King Pelé during his career. The attention snowballed through 1977 and culminated with 77,691 spectators for the 1977 playoff game between the Cosmos and the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers at Giants stadium. Pelé retired from the sport, and the league, in 1977 after an exhibition game between the two professional football clubs he had played for — New York Cosmos and Santos FC from Brazil (Holroyd, 2005).
The NASL followed its success by undergoing a major expansion, adding six teams in 1978. League competition was organized into a NFL-style divisional lineup with a 30-game season. Teams also went into an unprecedented spending spree to sign up international players in an attempt to match the Cosmos’ success or at least remain competitive in the league (Litterer & Holroyd, 2003).
Seven years after Pelé’s farewell, the league started 1984 (its 17th season) smaller than it had been in over a decade with only nine teams. Also, four of these teams were on shaky financial ground. The league eventually closed down after the Chicago-Toronto best-of-three finals series in Toronto, Canada (Holroyd, 2006).
Addressing the Mistakes
Policy 1: Develop Homegrown Talents to Generate Awareness
What could have the league done to sustain itself? What could have been avoided? Among the team sports played in the United States, soccer had not yet reached the level of fan interest and media attention that is given to professional baseball, basketball and football. As a result, the franchise teams that made the NASL were in shaky financial standing except for that brief golden period that spanned 1971 to 1977.
In this regard, the first issue to address is generating awareness and increasing the interest of fans. Soccer was not, and is not yet, dear to the hearts of American sports spectators. It has not reached the manic-obsessive levels of fan interest outside of the United States. According to Paglia (2007), the nature of the game runs counter to the fundamental element required of a US spectator sport.
A hallmark of the most popular outdoor spectator sports in America, for example baseball and football, is that fans try to anticipate the next plays, possible game outcomes and share these speculations with one another. Soccer, by its nature, is an extemporaneous sports with many improvisational plays. It is so fluid that speculating on outcomes is close to impossible.
Fan interest could, however, be impacted by creating awareness. In 1975, fan interest and awareness of soccer went up when Pelé played in the league. At the time of his entry, Pelé was famous even in the United States. This tack is being duplicated again by the Major League Soccer when the LA Galaxy contracted David Beckham to play for the team. Paglia (2007) sees that Beckham will create an impact but this alone will not “convert the curious to fans”. Furthermore, the impact may not be at the same level as when Pelé played in the NASL. The two players are not the same whether in stature or even in playing style.
Giorgio Chinaglia, the former Italian international who played alongside Pelé, does not think Beckham alone can promote the sport and league. Other big European names have to follow him to produce sustained success. Chinaglia even estimates that around 50 international soccer stars may be needed. (Adderley, 2007). But the NASL have already gone through this route before and it was with disastrous results.
Some, even in 1978, had criticized the move to bring in more foreign players as shortsighted. They said that it was more important to develop American talent. But those voices were lonely cries in the wilderness.
A lesson could be learned from 1973 when the Philadelphia Atoms won the NASL championship. Fan interest was sparked by the emergence of Kyle Rote Jr. He was considered the first “All-American” soccer star. The American spectator wants a star to relate to and follow. And it would be better if the star was homegrown. The NASL should link up with amateur, collegiate and semi-professional soccer leagues. It would even be better if it had its own developmental league.
Policy 2: Cooperation and Fiscal Discipline
Looking back into the 1978 NASL spending spree, despite the increased audience base and interest, more money was being spent than what was being earned. Operating a sports league is an awkward venture. The owners have to co-operate and make many business decisions collegially despite the fierce team competition. Taking a page from the National Football League’s business model, the NASL could have developed an internal incentive system that would stabilize team expenditures and “equalize” revenue generation.
Two sets of incentives used by the NFL are (1) the teams’ owners share roughly 70% of their revenues with each other; and (2) they stick to a strict salary cap that limits the amount each team can spend on players’ salaries. As a result of these incentives, all thirty-two teams in the NFL have an even chance of being financially viable and athletically competitive despite having different market base (The Economist, 2006). Admittedly, the NASL attempted to institute a salary cap in 1984 but by then it was to little to late.
Policy 3: Align Game to International Standards
Soccer’s World Cup is the biggest sporting event in world. The third policy that NASL could have done was to align its tournament format to that of the World Cup and international competition.
By establishing a tournament format aligned to international (or globally accepted/recognized) format helps the league in two ways. One is that the American audience is educated on the mechanics of the game, and consequently increases the level of appreciation for the sport. Another is that the level of play of American players also gets aligned to that of foreign national teams.
European football leagues hold inter-league competitions to determine the “continental” champion. For example, the Italian League champion plays against the French League champion. The NASL had already previously done this through friendly tours. The Ft. Lauderdale Strikers made a tour of England in February 1978. Foreign teams also toured the United States.
Becoming competitive against foreign soccer teams could have helped in sustaining fan interest and support. Case in point is the impact of US National Team’s achievement in the 1994 World Cup. The team surpassed all expectations and reached the quarterfinals. This accomplishment sparked greater interest in the sport.
Adderley, Nigel. 2007. Beckham’s US Test. Accessed October 25, 2007 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/6294762.stm
Holroyd, Steve. 2005. The Year in American Soccer – 1984. Accessed October 25, 2007 from http://www.sover.net/~spectrum/year/1984.html
2006. The Year in American Soccer – 1968. Accessed October 25, 2007 from http://www.sover.net/~spectrum/year/1968.html
Litterer, David and Steve Holroyd. 2003. The Year in American Soccer – 1978. Accessed October 25, 2007 from http://www.sover.net/~spectrum/year/1978.html
Paglia, Jim. 2007. A Naysayer View of Pro Soccer. Accessed October 25, 2007 from http://www.socceramerica.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=Articles.showArticleHomePage;art_aid=22406
The Economist. 2006. In a league of its own. [Electronic version] Accessed October 25, 2007 from http://www.economist.com/business/displaystory.cfm?story_id=6859210