Around the World and Close to Home
A nationwide party is celebrated July 4 for the U.S. Bicentennial, highlighted by New York’s grand parade of 15 tall ships and extravagant fireworks display. Jimmy Carter wins the presidential election and eccentric film and aviation tycoon Howard Hughes dies mysteriously, leaving $1.5B. The Summer Olympics come to Montreal and Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci earns the first perfect score of 10.0. Dixy Lee Ray is elected the first female governor of Washington, city, county and state lawsuits against the American League are settled when a Major League Baseball expansion team is offered, to begin play in 1977, and the 66,000-seat Kingdome opens in Seattle and hosts over 2.4 million visitors in its first 10 months.
Welcome to the Big Time
If soccer’s passion and popularity among Washingtonians was unknown outside the region before, certainly the rest of the nation, if not the world, took notice in 1976. Suddenly everything gets very big, very fast.
When the Sounders made the decision to pull-up stakes uptown and make the spacious new Kingdome their home, suddenly Seattle becomes more than just a quaint success story tucked away in a faraway corner of the world. The determination to depart Memorial Stadium is understandable. After repeatedly adding capacity, the Sounders had no room for growth without either investing in extensive renovation or becoming the first tenant under the world’s largest concrete roof. Once they landed upon the latter, they had gone big-time.
The Kingdome’s first sporting event is an exhibition between the Sounders and newly signed Geoff Hurst and New York Cosmos, featuring world-renowned Pelé. Since the teams are not scheduled to meet during the regular season, general manager Jack Daley entices the Cosmos with a $50,000 guarantee. One month prior to the match, with sales at 15,000, Daley says he will be disappointed not to reach 40,000. “What we are gunning for is the largest soccer crowd in American history.” In 1926, Hakoah Bienne faced the New York all-stars before 46,000 at the Polo Grounds.
By mid-March, the buzz is becoming tangible all sideline seats in the first level are sold. That includes some 12,000 season ticket holders. Yet in the final days the sense of occasion washes over the region. The soccer fans having long since secured their seats, now the audience expands to the general population, most of them to witness the first soccer game in their lifetime. The sales click continuously upward: 37,000 on April 4 44,000 by April 6 and 36 hours before kickoff the record is smashed. It’s a sellout of 58,128 by game time (6,000 seats have yet to be installed). Pelé does not disappoint, twice scoring on free kicks in the 3-1 Cosmos win. Daley and the Sounders clear of a profit exceeding $150,000.
During the previous NASL season, Pelé’s first in America, there had been 13 crowds of 20,000 or more. In 1976, the Sounders finish with 12 attendances beyond that threshold during the regular season and playoffs, plus three others for this friendly as well as the Team America-Brazil Bicentennial Cup and Soccer Bowl. Beyond just capacity, Kingdome’s greater field dimensions also prompt the Sounders to host their first international friendly (Glasgow’s Rangers) and FIFA’s first World Cup qualifier to be played indoors.
It's not only the appetite for Seattle fans that is satisfied. The Sounders play preseason games in six cities, including Spokane and Yakima, and Tacoma procures its own American Soccer League club, although Cheney Stadium’s baseball configuration proves an odd fit. Over time, because of its sheer size and sterile atmosphere the Kingdome will develop its share of detractors. Still, it allows the world to take notice of the exceptional level of support in Washington.