Organizers Call World Cup in U.S. a Success
By Steve Berkowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 18, 1994; Page A1
PASADENA, Calif., July 16 When Brazil or Italy celebrates late Sunday afternoon at the Rose Bowl as the World Cup soccer tournament's first four-time champion, U.S. organizers will have achieved the first of their two immodest goals: stage the greatest World Cup in history.
A little more than two weeks ago, with the tournament less than half complete, the leader of soccer's world governing body declared it so.
"This World Cup is the best we have ever had," said Joao Havelange, president of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and a world soccer official at 10 of the 15 all-time World Cup tournaments.
An event that once seemed incongruous with the American sports scene captured U.S. fans. Tickets were sold out and stadiums were packed. Television ratings were the best ever in the United States for soccer. Scoring was up, hooliganism was nonexistent.
"It's been way past my expectations and I'm a cockeyed optimist," said Alan Rothenberg, the U.S. World Cup organizing committee's chairman and CEO as well as the U.S. Soccer Federation's president.
U.S. organizers had hoped to make a $20 million profit, which goes to the USSF. Scott LeTellier, the U.S. organizing committee's managing director/chief operating officer, said Thursday night, "We are very confident that we will exceed that figure."
The U.S. organizing committee's bold use of large stadiums for every match and Americans' voracious appetite for tickets led to the obliteration of the previous World Cup records for total and average attendance. Going into Sunday's championship game, the crowds have totaled 3,474,373 an average of 69,487. The previous record total was 2,514,443 in Italy in 1990 and the previous record average was 60,772 in Brazil in 1950.
Helped by the U.S. national team's advancement to the second round for the first time since 1930, the tournament's normally minuscule U.S. television ratings also skyrocketed to record levels. Rule changes designed to promote attacking soccer resulted in a nearly 20 percent increase in scoring over the 1990 World Cup and dramatic finishes to many matches. Fears of unruly fan behavior, which resulted in the installation of fences around the fields at two of the nine venues including Washington's RFK Stadium never materialized.
Soccer also made its way out of sports reports and into the media and culture at large, as Americans were exposed to the best and the worst the sport has to offer sometimes all at once. The United States pulled off a stunning 2-1 upset of Colombia in the first round for its first World Cup victory since 1950, but the victory was marred when Colombian defender Andres Escobar was murdered in Colombia because he had inadvertently deflected the ball into his own goal, giving the United States a 1-0 lead. Defending champion Germany was eliminated in the quarterfinals by Bulgaria, which came into this tournament winless in World Cup play. Argentina's controversial former superstar midfielder Diego Maradona eliminated himself by testing positive for banned stimulants after a first-round match.
All of this put soccer on the front pages of American newspapers, on magazine covers from Newsweek to the New Yorker and on TV shows such as "The Late Show with David Letterman," "Nightline," and "Good Morning America."
"We had no doubt that the stadiums would be packed," FIFA General Secretary Joseph "Sepp" Blatter said Thursday. "What amazed and surprised us was how well [the World Cup] was received by the United States population. We are very happy that during one month, people have learned to pay attention to this sport in the United States."
Enter the second of the U.S. organizers' two immodest goals: leave a legacy for soccer in the United States.
When FIFA awarded the World Cup to the United States on July 4, 1988, many soccer observers outside the United States were appalled. The United States had not qualified for the World Cup since 1950 and did not have a bona fide professional outdoor soccer league. This was a nation FIFA chose to conduct its quadrennial world championship? This was a nation that would automatically receive one of the coveted 24 places in the field, as the World Cup's host always does?
Yes, said FIFA, with two caveats one implicit, one explicit. The U.S. Soccer Federation was told that in exchange for being allowed to host the World Cup, it had to oversee the formation of a new professional league. It understood that it had to do whatever was necessary to improve the U.S. national team.
The national team's success now speaks for itself. After qualifying for the 1990 World Cup and getting eliminated with an 0-3 record in first-round play, the Americans regrouped around a nucleus of players who improved quickly while playing for professional clubs outside the United States. They proved their mettle in U.S. Cup '92 and U.S. Cup '93, a pair of tournaments against other national teams that also gave American fans a taste of what awaited this summer.
American stars and personalities, such as goalkeeper Tony Meola, midfielders Tab Ramos and John Harkes and defender Alexi Lalas, began to develop. So did the interest of soccer fans, who snapped up tickets as soon as they were put on sale in early 1993 and signed up to become what grew to be an army of more than 11,000 volunteers nationwide.
Michel Platini, the former French national team star who is serving as the president of the organizing committee for the 1998 World Cup in France, said he was not surprised by this. He pointed out that more than 101,000 fans attended the 1984 Olympic soccer final at the Rose Bowl between Brazil and France, and that competition does not involve the world's best players. Nevertheless, he continues to marvel.
"American people want to be in the event," he said. "They like to buy tickets and like to volunteer. It's special here. I don't know if we can find a volunteer with five dollars in France."
Now the question for soccer in America is what happens when the World Cup isn't here. The new professional league that FIFA demanded, Major League Soccer, is scheduled to begin play in April 1995 with 12 teams, including one in Washington.
But Major League Soccer (MLS) isn't going to be like World Cup soccer, which features the world's best players and teams. Every MLS match isn't going to be a happening with sold-out stadiums, fans with their faces painted and television audiences larger than those for U.S. Open golf, Wimbledon tennis or major league baseball games of the week (although the ratings were still well below those for big events such as the Super Bowl and Olympic figure skating).
"I think we need a little time to get people to be realistic, get their feet on the ground and start the long-haul process" of building MLS, Rothenberg said.
However, there are numerous unknowns surrounding MLS, in part because it is largely being organized by the same people who have been working on the U.S. World Cup organizing committee. MLS organizers, led by Rothenberg, say they intend to have $50 million to $100 million in initial capital and average player salaries of about $70,000 a year. Yet, they have identified only one investor. MLS plans to begin in 12 cities, but only seven have been chosen so far.
MLS plans to have only three to five foreign players per team at the start, but because leagues outside the United States begin in the late summer, many of the now-identifiable U.S. national team players won't wait until next April to decide their futures. And it is possible their futures and that of the U.S. national team will be better served if they play in top international leagues that operate 10 months a year rather than a fledgling U.S. league that will play a six-month season.
Corporate sponsors, whose money will be critical to MLS's annual operating budgets, seem happy with their participation in the World Cup. "The thing that really matters to us with any organization that we work with is can they deliver what they say they're going to be able to," Jackie Woodward, director of sports marketing for McDonald's, said after attending a presentation MLS officials made to representatives from about 30 companies here Thursday. "World Cup '94 has delivered."
But when companies buy into the World Cup, they know they are buying into an established event that has a massive worldwide audience. "Our sponsorship of World Cup and a decision to sponsor soccer in the U.S. are two separate decisions that aren't really linked," said Mava Heffler, vice president for promotions of MasterCard International. "The World Cup is an event. Here, soccer will be a start-up proposition and that involves a whole different set of considerations and factors."
Woodward and Heffler both said their companies will consider involvement with MLS. ESPN is part of a three-year contract with MLS that also involves ESPN2 and ABC. That will make MLS attractive to sponsors, but people will have to tune in. And Loren Matthews, ESPN's senior vice president for programming, isn't sure they will.
"I don't think the success of World Cup necessarily translates into success for MLS," Matthews said. "They've got to make it on their own. ... But we think it's worth the time and effort. We're going to give MLS some exposure. If they can develop stars to relate to and market correctly, it has a chance to succeed."
It certainly will never have a better chance to succeed.
"We have offered them the best platform," FIFA's Blatter said. "It couldn't be better after what has happened now. Now it is up to them to play. As we might say, the ball is in your camp, U.S. soccer. Try and kick it the right way."
Special correspondent Steven Goff contributed to this report.