Framing Soccer for the Network Era: ABC and the Challenge to Nationally Broadcast the North American Soccer League, 1979-1981

Curator's Note

In 1979, the North American Soccer League (NASL), the nation’s first significant professional organization, secured its only national broadcasting contract with ABC. A two-year agreement worth 1.5 million dollars, the deal called for nine telecasts of regular season games.[1] A Business Week article tracing profit margins for all major televised professional sports associations forecasted that the “new kid on the block,” soccer, had the highest potential for success behind the National Football League.[2] This promise, however, was never realized, as soccer earned a paltry 2.6 average ratings share, which paled in comparison to Monday Night Football’s then average of 20 shares. Network officials decided to dump future coverage of the “sport of the 1980s” until the following decade.

ABC coverage of the games was not perfect, as confessed in this clip by play-by-play announcer Jim McKay. Critical examination of past broadcasts reveals that the network struggled to integrate the league into its sports programming model and overcome the market realities of network-era broadcasting. ABC’s primary goal was to “break down the barrier of it [soccer] as a foreign game,” but for a variety of reasons, including its failure to promote and “Americanize” many of the league’s foreign players and its inability to adapt production conventions akin to American football to soccer, the network failed to achieve this goal.

One area which challenged the network was its negotiation of commercials. Played in a near uninterrupted stream of action with no timeouts or clock stoppages, soccer was antithetical to the broadcasting rhythm associated with the American televisual experience fragmented through the airing of advertisements.  In the 1960s, several NASL players and referees admitted they were ordered to feign injuries and call phantom fouls in order to create stoppages of play for commercial breaks for local broadcasts. Advertisers insisted ABC build in advertising spots, as past efforts by local broadcasters to supply picture-in-picture display or sponsorship of the game’s halves in their entirety were frowned upon. On May 12 1979, as the centerpiece clip shows, the inevitable occurred during the network’s first broadcast between the New York Cosmos and Tampa Bay Rowdies, as the game’s deciding goal was interrupted by a commercial break. Such disruptions to live play were accompanied by the unconventional use of in-game interviews with players and coaches, a product of the network’s “telesport” production techniques, which favored narrative design and the promotion of the game as a “show” over that of an “event.” These textual practices disrupted the game’s liveness and sense of immediacy, aesthetic elements vital to sports programming.

ABC’s struggle to attract viewership for NASL games prompts us to revisit and question the often rosy relationship painted between sports and television during the 1970s. Moreover, it makes one wonder to what degree television practices may have stunted the growth of soccer as a mainstream spectator sport in America.

[1] Although there were some professional leagues in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the NASL was the first widely recognized professional soccer league in America. Founded in 1968, the league folded in 1984.

[2] “Monopoly Pays Off in the Business of Sports,” Business Week, 13 October 1980, pg. 146.

Comments

Michael D Dwyer's picture

Television in sports

Thanks for the post! 

This practice continued in American soccer broadcasts all the way up to the 1990 World Cup, broadcast by TNT. I remember missing a goal due to a commercial break. Even in the early years of MLS broadcasts on ESPN they would split the screen to run ads (with full sound!)

I think it’s absolutely clear that television practices have changed the sports landscape in the US—football and baseball, clearly, are sports that are shaped by their television stoppages.

Oddly enough, it is the extreme progression of these television intrusions on the sporting event that now makes soccer seem refreshing to US audiences — witness ESPN’s Bill Simmons discussion of the reliable 2 hour timeframe of pro soccer, the lack of dopey sponsored segments ("The Web MD injury report!" ) etc etc.

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