On June 20th 1977, the New York Times reported that the largest crowd to ever attend a soccer game in the United States had the previous day watched the New York Cosmos’ 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rowdies at Giants Stadium, aided by a Pelé hat-trick. In a follow-up report a few weeks later in the Times, Tony Kornheiser (yes, that Tony Kornheiser) wrote that the Cosmos’ GM Mike Martin “was shivering with excitement” when the crowd was announced, and that LA Aztec’s owner John Chaffetz had “tears brought to my eyes” when he saw the above photo in the Times the next day.
The hyperbole did not stop there. The US Soccer Federation’s General Secretary Kurt Lamm told Kornheiser that “When they write the history of soccer in this country, that afternoon will be Day One in all the books.”
NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam gustily predicted that “In as few as five years, but in no more than 10, soccer will become the biggest pro sport in this country, bigger than football.”
Kornheiser, after also reviewing the remarkably rapid growth of youth soccer in the U.S. throughout the 1970s, concluded himself that “Soccer is…in the infant stage of a boom that may leave it unmatched among team sports in this country. It is no longer an “immigrant” sport but suddenly something as American as, say, baseball.”
Yet, there was one downbeat section to Kornheiser’s report: soccer was not, he noted, proving popular in the inner-cities, while it was generally most popular in cities not noted for their ethnic minorities. “The inner-city youth looks to high-paying professional sports such as basketball and football for upward mobility out of the ghetto,” Kornheiser observed, also saying awareness of the sport remained low in cities due to the lack of television coverage. In places where soccer was traditionally popular with ethnic groups, like Toronto and Chicago, NASL’s attendances couldn’t even reach four figures except for Pelé’s visits. Crowds across pro soccer were extraordinarily varied (in the NASL, from 34,150 in 1977 for the Cosmos down to 3,902 for the Connecticut Bicentennials).
While looking past the euphoria of 62,394 witnessing the Cosmos was hard to do, the future was perhaps not quite as shiny as it appeared in the magical summer of 1977 for North American soccer. “The coronation of professional soccer is premature,” Kornheiser wisely concluded.
- Tom Dunmore