When Sonny Werblin talks, the athletic world snaps to attention. And yesterday he was saying: "I think soccer in this country is in the same position as the American Football League (in the early '60s).
"The older league (the NFL) said it wouldn't go, that nothing would happen. Five years later, it was the equal of the order league. Forty years of effort (by the NFL) had been overcome in a couple of years."
The sporting Midas is hardly objective. Gulf and Western is trusting a half-ton or so of its money to him with the hope that soccer, indeed, will shortly rival the traditional American sports.
And that its Washington Diplomats will be in a position to ride that soccer surge.
The soccer-boom-is-just-around-the-corner pitch is a well-worn one, 12 years old to be exact. A lot of men with fine minds and fat wallets assumed that because American was fascinated with the '66 World Cup on television it soon would view soccer with the same passion an nearly every other nation.
They were wrong.
Men who made fortunes because they could sense who wanted a better mousetrap -- and then built it -- guessed badly about soccer. Now, Werblin, who gave us Joe Namath and a palace in a Jersey swamp, is taking a whack at it.
"Soccer will go for three reasons," he said during a lunch yesterday that included Dips' officials and Coach Gordon Bradley. "First of all, mothers would rather see their boys play soccer than football because there aren't as many injuries.
"Then economics comes into it. Soccer is relatively cheap -- and schools are getting to the point where they can't afford football.
"And everybody can play. Ordinary men. And you can see the faces of soccer players. And not look up and see only chins (like pro football)."
Still, if youthful participation leads to financial success at the pro level, why did the North American Soccer League franchise do so horribly in St. Louis, one of the bastions of American amateur soccer?
The organization was poorly run, said Steve Danazansky, president of the Dips. "There was no aggressive marketing. And college soccer was so good people just didn't want to pay $5 to see a pro game that might not have been that much better than what they could get free."
Once again, Werblin draws a leaguewide parallel with the early days of the AFL, saying: "Management was not good. There was no leadership. Everything positive was put together in two years.
"We had good press people, good marketing people, a better tax staff (than the NFL)." Implied is the assumption that some sort of transformation is at hand within the NASL -- and that Henry Kissinger will be able to tame international officials furious with the league for several important rules changes.
Timing is at least as important as organization in athletics as well as other business, as Werblin realizes only too well. And as appealing player with enormous skill, a Namath.
Washington as a sports town?
"Well, we've got to find the town, find the interest," he said. "Frankly, one of the things out studies show is tha a whole lot of people don't know how to get to RFK Stadium. They know it's in Washington, but where?
"But we're interested or we would not be here. We want (the Dips) to be family entertainment, like it is with the Cosmos at the Meadowlands. with tailgate parties. Soccer here is a very cheap ticket at the moment ( $6 for adults and $4 for 18-year-olds and under).
"We'd be very happy with 20,000 people for each of our game. And we have absolutely no thought of leaving. We might start looking if we lost a couple million. But we bought the team as an investment, not to leave town.
"We did not come in as carpetbaggers. We have a five-year contract (with the stadium) with two five-year options on our part. And we definitely could coexist with baseball. That would make the facility physically less attractive, but we're dealing with different fans."
Part of the reason sophisticated soccer fans have not supported the NASL in the past is that over-the-hill foreign players were advertised as international superstars. A question here has been: do Washingtonians know too little for pro soccer to flourish -- or too much?
"Most of the teams now are looking at the young international stars to bring over," Bradley said. "We are talking with the captain of the World Cup winning team, players like that.
"This league has come a long way. The Cosmos in 1971 were drawing about 2,100 a game. It wasn't until '75 that they averaged 5,000. We have a lot to offer, but right now American is third world in soccer."