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AMERICA'S `INVISIBLE SPORT' NEEDS TO START YOUNG, WORK FROM THERE

Despite its worldwide popularity, Michael Forte calls soccer "the invisible sport" in America.

Why?"Look what happened to the North American Soccer League," Forte said. "It was doomed to failure when you had to depend on foreign nationals for tickets and for players. It was a decade ahead of its time."

Forte is president of Soccer USA Partners, which has television negotiating and marketing rights to the U.S. national team that will play in the World Cup in 1994 in America.

SportsChannel America already is more than halfway through its schedule of 12 games in the World Series of Soccer pitting the U.S. team against the best national and club teams in the world. Over the next four years, the cable sports network, which now reaches about 16 million homes, will televise 300 hours of soccer.

"SportsChannel has been willing to commit a huge block of time to soccer. Don't I wish that SportsChannel was bigger? Sure," Forte said. "But what I tell people is that the big networks don't live up to our standards. They don't know yet how to broadcast soccer to Americans."

The U.S. team will play Juventus of Turin and AC Milan of Italy and Sheffield Wednesday of the English League. Recently, Argentina's 1-0 victory over the United States at Stanford Stadium drew 35,772 spectators.

Working with SportsChannel America and the U.S. Soccer Federation, Forte keeps busy figuring out ways to fill the rest of those seats and get Americans interested in competitive, professional soccer.

"Am I going to get my dad to go out and see a soccer game? Not in a million years," Forte said. "But my son? Sure. You don't become an avid buyer of tickets to a sport you're not exposed to as a kid."

Forte said studies show about 27 million Americans play or have played soccer, with the peak playing age 16. It's the biggest organized sport in the United States at the 16-and-under age level, he said, "and it's the fastest-growing high school sport in America."

"In five years, those 16-year-olds will be 21," Forte said. "That's when I would start the next pro league, in 1995 when all those 27 million kids are 21. I'd put a limit on the number of foreign players you can have. . . . I'd make it a spring league. No way I would compete with the NFL. I would announce a pro league just before the World Cup, and I'd announce the layers the day after.

"If it fails one more time, you can kiss it goodbye forever."

A key to SportsChannel's telecasts has been the announcers. No British or European accents. Just plain old Americans, like Jimmy Donovan and Matt Bahr, the former NFL placekicker who was a soccer All-American at Penn State.

Bahr has been assigned the project of familiarizing viewers with an Americanized terminology of the game, borrowing phrases from sports like basketball to describe such soccer moves as "picks," "screens" and "in your face disgrace."

Forte's marketing ideas don't stop there. Celebrity sponsorships, Sheffield Wednesday T-shirts, soccer ball giveaways at fast-food stores, and televised co-ed beach soccer tournaments.

At least, U.S. soccer doesn't have the problem of hooliganism that plagues European teams, particularly those in Britain, although hooliganism has had it's negative impact in the United States, especially "at the corporate level, certainly," Forte said.

"But one thing you've got to understand is that our stadiums are different, our atmosphere is different. There are no seats in most of the stadiums in England, and it's easy for pushing and shoving to get started. And their stadiums make the Yale Bowl look modern.

"I don't get it a lot from the press, but I do from corporate executives who say, `We don't need you. Why should I bother with you?' In England, it's a blue collar sport. Here, it's kids and their families. It's the only sport in the U.S. where kids bring their dads, and dad doesn't know what's going on."