By J Hutcherson - Throughout most of the history of the North American Soccer League, the majority of American homes had three networks to choose from when it came to watching sports. With as many as seven professional sports leagues, network airtime was always at a premium. Upstart leagues like the American Basketball Association, the World Football Association, and the World Hockey League not only had to compete with the NBA, NFL, and NHL, they also had to compete with sports in general for broadcast time. And just getting that time was half the battle.
With three choices, the ratings for a televised sport had to be much greater than what is accepted today. This was the period where professional hockey and basketball were usually taped delayed, shown late at night to not interfere with the network lineup, if they were shown at all.
Enter the North American Soccer League, who not only had to sell themselves to the networks, but to the consumer as well. For the first few years of the league’s existence, neither of these were easy sells. An early contract with CBS dissipated due to low ratings.
After the post-Pele boom in NASL attendance figures, rampant expansion, and an influx of imported talent, the league tried again. In 1977 a contract to broadcast several regular season games, the playoffs, and the Soccer Bowl was signed with ABC. On the surface it seemed like the perfect deal for the NASL, but as both the league and ABC soon realized there were major problems.
As one club executive, Jack Krumpe, noted: “I think we sold our souls to national television, and we’ve gotten very little in return.” Krumpe highlighted problems with the timeslot and the announcers, noting that soccer was hard to play in the middle of the summer at 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon and that the announcers, Jim McKay, Paul Gardner, and Vern Lundquist, lacked personality.
Another thing the league lacked was ratings. To put it bluntly, they were horrendous. Added to this the policy of selling advertising locally rather than network wide, and the first year on ABC was an unqualified disaster.
Fortunately, and surprisingly, ABC believed in the product and moved the telecasts to Sunday. Ratings not only didn’t improve; they had a detrimental effect as a lead in to Wide World of Sports. Hurting the highest rated sports show on television put and end to the NASL on ABC, with the NASL refusing a curtailed contract.
The refusal of the NASL to bargain over a product that wasn’t a ratings draw greatly surprised ABC. As their director of production Chet Forte noted at the time: “I think they’re living in a test tube…. They think they’ve got the best thing in the world…. Basically, they think they’re more than they really are.”
With attendance falling after the retirement of Pele and an overabundance of poorly supported franchises in questionable markets, the NASL now faced the 1980s without a national television contract. NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam felt he had the answer. In 1980 he approached the networks with a simple idea. Rather than show complete matches the league would produce a weekly highlights show to win over a television fan base. The networks weren’t interested in broadcasting the NASL equivalent of the BBC’s Match Of The Day, and once again the league faced no national television coverage.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Woosnam said: “I think the television thing will work itself out eventually. As the popularity of the sport continues to spread, our TV ratings will go up.”
The only problem was that the popularity of the sport was not growing. In fact, fans were abandoning the sport in the same numbers that flocked to it five years earlier. Rather than doing everything short of giving the broadcast rights away to the networks, the league stonewalled, demanding payment greater than what the advertising dollars brought in. Not surprisingly, the networks chose to ignore the NASL rather than lose money by broadcasting their games.
Realizing that the networks had had enough, the league turned to the fledgling cable station ESPN. In 1981 they signed a contract to broadcast 20 games. Unfortunately, they were three years too early to rely on cable as their sole broadcast outlet.
In 1981, cable was available in less than 30% of any major US market, and unavailable in Canada where the league had five franchises. This did little to generate television revenue, and the league faced the same problems it had before.
As former NASL coach Ron Newman noted: “I challenge all the other sports to go without television and see how long they survive.”
In 1985 the league closed for good, having lasted six years without a national network contract.