The 1990 World Cup soccer tournament, which starts June 8 in Italy, is a guaranteed television success around the world. Estimates of the global audience reach over 600 million, while there is the potential for 1 billion people to see the July 8 final either live or on tape.
In the United States, however, nobody quite knows how many people will tune into matches that start at noon PDT, especially if the United States doesn't fare well in the competition. Although the sport is growing in the United States, soccer telecasts have never attracted ratings numbers like those of baseball, basketball or football.
"This can be like the NCAA basketball tournament because every team has stars," said Turner Network Television's Bob Neal, lead commentator on the broadcast teams that will provide Americans with English-language coverage of 24 matches. "If we can get people watching from the beginning and develop the stories of the teams and those stars, then we can build an audience for the final July 8."
But Neal admits that TNT faces a major task to lure viewers to a sport that has no history of TV success in the United States.
"I'm optimistic, but I'm a realist, too," he said. "Soccer is not even generally available on United States television, so the World Cup may simply pop on the air, as far as many people are concerned. But the World Cup is an exciting event if you follow the whole tournament. We need to take the broad stroke approach, not to educate, but to supplement what the people can see."
Neal will be teamed with Mick Luckhurst as the prime TNT commentary team. They will call the three United States games, a task that will require some explanation for neophyte American viewers.
"The United States is like a I-AA college football team which suddenly has to play Notre Dame," Neal said. "The big difference between our players and the ones they'll face is the lack of a professional league here. I see the American team as conservative and fundamental, but their best hope probably is that they might get a tie. Our production staff has pre-taped pieces on the team and its players, so I think the public will get to know them and the challenge they face before long."
Neal has some firm opinions about television soccer coverage in the United States, having done 150 games in the old North American Soccer League before it died.