Commentary

A chat with Seamus Malin: Part 2 -- the NASL and the evolution of the American fan

In Part 1, we talked about how Seamus Malin came to the USA as a teenager, his love for Aston Villa, and the finer points of English FA coaching courses in the 1970s. This week, we move on to the North American Soccer League.

SEAMUS MALIN: In the 70s was really when things started to change in the U.S. You wrote this article about the game between the Boston Minutemen and the Cosmos. That was a very surreal era, because the NASL was a league built on sand. It was top-down stuff with all kinds of terrible characters [owning teams]. One of the Minutemen players told me that on one occasion the players came to the game and they parked their cars so that the owner couldn't get out because they hadn't been paid. You talk to the players at that time and you'll get some great stories.

IAN PLENDERLEITH: When I was writing Rock n Roll Soccer, I did talk to several dozen former NASL players and coaches, and they all had great stories. I was a kid in England during the NASL era, so my awareness of the league was only through what we saw in English magazines like Shoot! and Soccer Monthly. There'd be all these pictures of glamorous photos from the brave new world of soccer -- my friends and I were 12 or 13 years old and just laughed at the garish uniforms and the cheerleaders and the lack of grass.

It was exotic and colorful and interesting, but then all of a sudden it was gone, and for us in the UK it was quickly forgotten. It was only when I lived in the U.S. much later did I remember what a fascinating league that it was, and what an important part of both U.S. soccer history and world soccer history it represents -- because part of the book's premise is that the NASL was, unconsciously at the time of course, a huge influence on later reforms in Europe of the English Premier League and the Champions League. The NASL was a step away from those muddy pitches in England that you just described. Players like Rodney Marsh loved the U.S. because in England they got treated like Mike Summerbee -- show any skill or imagination and you'll get kicked into the Royal ****ing Box! [see Part 1] That was the thinking at the time. For me, the NASL was fascinating because it fostered this not actually revolutionary idea about entertaining the fan, which had gone utterly out the window in England, for example, in favor of results and borderline thuggery.

SM: I was involved with both of those initial U.S. pro leagues that competed with each other in 1967 before they saw sense and merged into the NASL. I had done radio commentary for the Boston Rovers in the FIFA-sanctioned United Soccer Association league, which was the league of imported teams in the tradition of William Cox [the Boston Rovers were in fact Shamrock Rovers from Ireland]. Later, when Pelé was signed by the Cosmos in 1975, I was hired by the team as their TV summarizer, the color commentator. With Pelé, of course, the whole thing exploded. Warner Brothers wrote the Cosmos off as an investment for the whole company, and they'd send Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer off to Hong Kong in the offseason to talk about Atari video consoles at trade shows, because that was the real money maker. Prior to Pelé it was tricky. They'd run commercials during games -- the ball would go out for a goal kick and you'd get a message in your ear saying 'We're gone for a minute', and you'd hope that nothing happened. There were stories of referees telling injured players to stay down so that TV could run a commercial break -- [NASL commissioner] Phil Woosnam told me that.

The guys who came from overseas saw it as a real adventure in getting to know America. They didn't completely buy into the notion that they were pioneers to make soccer part of the landscape, but they were saying, 'The wife and kids are here and we're living in Miami -- this is interesting! We can go to Disneyland, we can see the country.' They felt that they were being taken care of. In England, you didn't get paid very much, and you could always be replaced. In America, you weren't likely to be replaced, and you could look at the experience holistically, as I'm sure you heard when you talked to some of these players. So it wasn't much of a leap from that to doing promotional work for the game in the community.

For instance, the Dallas Tornado did really well to get out there, and that's why Dallas is still a huge hot spot for soccer in this country. So it was an interesting time where you saw better quality soccer than you were used to in the U.S., because there was nothing else except the college game.


Seamus Malin, with PBS, at the 1981 U-20 World Cup in Australia.

Then ESPN comes along [founded in 1979] and they were looking for programming, so that was a serendipitous marriage. They did Division I, II and III college playoff games because they had no programming. Now they're the tail that wags the dog, they own ABC.

I went to the San Siro in Milan several years ago for the Milan derby between Inter and AC -- I happened to be in the city on business and realized the game was on, so of course I wanted to go. I got letters of introduction from ABC because I'd worked World Cups for them, and I had a letter of introduction from ESPN. I went to the press gate and showed them the letter from ABC and they were saying, 'What is this ABC? Never heard of them.' Then I show them the letter from ESPN and they said, 'Ah, ESPN! No problem -- come on in!'

In short, if you're not on TV in America you don't exist, it's that simple. And so for a long time soccer didn't exist. I've managed to convert a bar here in Santa Fe into a soccer bar. I call my friends in, the bar staff now know who we are and they cater to us because we're good customers.

There's a guy there, a regular American Joe, and one of the first times I talked to him he says, 'What are you watching?' I tell him it's a game between Bayern Munich and Paris St. Germain, and he says, 'I don't know, soccer's never going to catch on here.' And I'm saying, 'Where have you been? Do you know the average attendance in Major League Soccer?' He says, 'Major League what?' I tell him it has the sixth highest attendance in the world and it has 29 teams.

So you get that. I used to hear it in England too: 'Oh, it'll never catch on over there.' When we got the World Cup in 1994, a lot of my British friends were really pissed off. Of course England didn't qualify, so for them it wasn't a real World Cup. But they said, 'Nobody will go. It's a joke, Americans know nothing about soccer. The stadiums will be half empty.' I said, 'Read my lips, I can guarantee that every stadium will be full for every game. Why? There's a population of people who think they've died and gone to heaven because they come here from other countries and now the World Cup is coming to them.'

That World Cup still holds the record for gross attendance, even though it was only a 24-team World Cup [3.6 million; average gate per game: 68,626]. Every stadium was packed.

Seamus Malin with Don Criqui.

IP: FIFA realized the potential after the 1984 Olympics in L.A. When the U.S. bid a year earlier for the 1986 World Cup after Colombia dropped out, FIFA was still sniffy about the U.S. and it was a rumored stitch-up that FIFA president Joao Havelange gave the tournament to Mexico because of his connections to the broadcasting company there. But what opens FIFA's eyes? Cash, of course, so they saw the gates in L.A. and realized the potential of the U.S. soccer crowd. I used to laugh when people in the UK asked me 'Will soccer ever catch on there?' And I'd tell them how I'd drive my girls to our soccer practice on spring evenings through suburban Maryland, and every single green space -- in parks, at high schools, at elementary schools -- was occupied by kids at soccer practice, two or three teams to a field.

SM: When I used to go to London on business in the 60s there was no Paddington Express into the center of town, you took a double decker bus from Heathrow Terminal One into the heart of London. It took a while, but I used to love that ride because from the top deck you could look out and see all these soccer fields. And I used to wonder if there would ever be a day when I could ride through a U.S. city and see something similar. Now these fields are everywhere -- everywhere!

The best U.S. player for several years was Clint Dempsey, who came from a small town in Nacogdoches, Texas [population 33,000]. Now you take it for granted that you'll see soccer fields here, even in Mississippi!

I always had one foot in the American game and one foot in the European game. Latin America too, of course, but more Europe because of my background. So I was always interested in getting to know these players who came over to the U.S. When I was working for the Cosmos, the team used to pay the air fares of journalists to fly with the team, because the newspapers wouldn't. 'It's soccer, who cares?' It was in the team's interests to do so, to get into the papers. We did away games on TV, no home games were televised, you had to encourage people to come to the stadium. We'd do home games for the radio only. Anyway, we'd reached the stage where they'd stopped inserting commercials during play, so the commercials were all packed into halftime. The break was rubbish, it was almost all commercials, but that was a reasonable tradeoff against interrupting the actual action. You didn't have to tell the viewer any more, 'While we were away selling shaving cream, Chinaglia hit a 30-yard screamer into the top corner.'

In the early days, the Cosmos actually paid for advertising -- the complete inverse of what it should be. There were kinds of gimmicks to encourage people to watch the game. There was one time we had a contest that went like this -- when you checked out at your local supermarket you'd get a card and have to fill out your name, address and phone number, and you'd put it in the mail to the Cosmos. The question on the card was: which player scored the last Cosmos goal in today's game?

So the game would still be running, and the goal was to keep everyone watching for as long as possible. So we'd draw out the card of, say, Al on Staten island, and call him up and ask the question. The hope was that Al would be sitting by his phone waiting for our call. I didn't call him, but I had to talk to the guy -- so the TV truck would put him through to me after checking he knew the answer, and I'd say to the crowd during a pause in the action, 'It's time to play Who Scored the Last Cosmos Goal? We've got Al from Staten Island on the line! Al, who scored the last Cosmos goal?' And this guy starts up, 'Hey, I already told the other guy -- I have to do this twice? You think I've got nothing better to do than talk to you guys all afternoon?' Classic New York! The guys in the truck are dying. So we killed that gimmick right there.

So there was a lot of American irreverence, shall we say, in order to make a buck. And you've got to love that, it's America, you can roll your eyes but smile at the same time. Those days are gone, and now TV coverage is pretty much the same as it's seen around the world. Same idea -- panels of experts. I thought the World Cup on ESPN last time around was great, it's taken really seriously now. Back then, SportsCenter used to refuse to run even the NASL scores."

IP: I thought that when MLS introduced the Beckham Rule in 2007 that it was a good idea at the time, but it ended up being something of an NASL repeat when the likes of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard started crossing the Atlantic for a last pay-check. Does U.S. soccer really need that now?

SM: I agree with you. ... It's a balance, because America's a funny market. You have the suburban crowd who come to the game big time, but you also traditionally had a hard core of international fans who were skeptical about what was happening on the field. That has sort of changed, and a lot of that's down to the Latin American influence, there are a lot of especially Central American players. That's in part because, frankly, they're cheap, and there are a lot of good players in Honduras, and it's a better option than hauling over a bunch of 33-year-olds from the English second division. I agree, the Beckham Rule was useful, but it's past its sell-by date. Look at all this talk about Lionel Messi coming to MLS -- I think there's less passion about that these days, he's been on everyone's TV screens for the last 15 years. And one of the problems with selling the game in America has been the conflict between watching games live in Tulsa or Seattle, or watching Bayern Munich on TV. The international crowd were always a bit skeptical about the home product. You'd get Italians in New York going to Cosmos games just to boo Giorgio Chinaglia because he'd left Lazio. That's New York, they booed him a lot because for them, as Lazio fans, he'd betrayed the team by leaving Rome for the U.S.

IP: Bringing over somebody like Messi at his age is a lose-lose for U.S. soccer. If he dominates games, the skeptics just say that shows how poor the league is when a 37-year-old at the end of career stands out so much. If he's a flop, then he's just a waste of money, a has-been who only came to the U.S. for the last big paycheck.

SM: And the spectator base has changed -- look at the huge gates in Atlanta, they don't have any superstars there. The crowds are now there, a lot of younger men between 25 and 50, and increasingly women too, and they're seeing their teams now as part of their community, just like they've always done with basketball teams, say. I agree with you, we're done with that era. Plus, if you really want to see Messi in the flesh, the chances are that he'll come on a summer tour, where they charge these preposterous ticket prices and often field second-string teams. I won't call it a scandal, but it's a bit of a ripoff.

IP: Hopefully those tours are also coming to an end. I think a lot of U.S. fans are too savvy now to get taken in by these meaningless, half-assed exhibition games masquerading as competition. My impression is that the U.S. fan is much more sophisticated nowadays, and may be among the best informed in the world because they follow the global game and foreign leagues. But they also have their own burgeoning league to nurture and love. The 'Euro Snob' who rejects MLS and only watches Serie A and La Liga -- I'm not sure that stereotype still exists.

SM: It's also very mixed, there are a lot of women, which you don't see in most other places around the world, because the U.S. has always been a place where girls and women have played as much soccer as the boys and the men. And at schools and colleges the game is much more integrated than it was in the past.

The country is so big and with so many people, and there's room and there's space for multiple sports. I love to tell people that soccer was a bigger game than baseball at the end of nineteenth century in New York -- Scottish and German immigrants and so forth. In 1958 when I played my first game for the university, there were 26 names on the roster, and only two were from a public high school. The rest were all prep schools or international students -- the exceptions were the soccer outliers like St. Louis and pockets in places like Pennsylvania and New York. The rest of the country was mainly ethnic leagues, who kept the game going here.

You'd get calls from people while you were commentating a college game telling you that you'd pronounced a Portuguese name wrong. So later when I worked for ESPN at World Cups and we'd have production meetings going through the lineups, I'd say, 'This is the Turkish team, Turkish players use their first names only on the back of their shirts, so you have to be sure you get their names right.' At times, I'd use my university affiliation to call a professor who was teaching, say, Romanian, and I'd tell him, 'I'm broadcasting a game featuring the Romanian soccer team,' and he'd say, 'Who are you?' I'd tell him that I needed to know how to pronounce this name, and I'd say the name, and he'd say, 'You've got that all wrong, it's Du-mi-trescu. Wait a minute, Romania's playing -- where can I see it?'

So then I'd go into these production meetings and tell them, this is how we're pronouncing these names, we're going to do it right. They'd be so pissed off at me, a lot of American Joes saying what matters is the way we pronounce it, and I'd say no, it's not -- what matters is the way the player pronounces it. I got a reputation for being a bit of a hard-ass about that. And it's because there are people from these countries that live in the U.S. and they love this game and are passionate about it. It connects them to their own country, and you've got to respect that, because they're your audience, you can't treat them like damned foreigners.

2 comments about "A chat with Seamus Malin: Part 2 -- the NASL and the evolution of the American fan".
  1. Rey Phillips, August 19, 2021 at 5:59 p.m.

    Bless him.  That last point, about getting the pronunciation of the players' names correct, is one near and dear to my heart.  It shows respect for the players. I wish that perspective were more common.  I still have colleagues who think it's o.k. to call someone "Guerrero" when the last name is "Guerra".  It drives me batty.

  2. Grant Goodwin, August 23, 2021 at 12:10 p.m.

    How far we have come over the past 40 years.  What a great article(s) over two parts. 
    I wish that they would hammer the broadcasters on how to prounce names today especially the Portuguese ones.  On the radio in the car, I listened to somebody during the Euro's from ESPN say Bruno Fernanch and Renato Sanch, and it took me a few minutes to realize that it was Bruno Fernandes and Renato Sanches.  It seems that just about everyone in this world knew how to prounouce their names except for the announcer (just one in particular).  It was pretty clownish as this guy went over the top to try and prounce everything else , but could not get some of the best players in the world's names correct.  

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