On April 9, 1976, Seattle's Kingdome hosts its first sporting event, an exhibition match between the North American Soccer League's Seattle Sounders and the New York Cosmos led by Brazilian superstar Pele (b. 1940). The game is played 13 days after the massive concrete dome's grand opening. The Cosmos win 3-1, but the event is more notable for the size of the crowd -- 58,128, reportedly a record for soccer in the United States -- and the brilliance of Pele, who scores the first and last of New York's goals.
Pele Strikes Twice
The match was less than three minutes old and fans were still settling into their seats when Pele scored on a free kick, easily beating Sounders goalkeeper Tony Chursky (b. 1953). The Cosmos quickly struck again, midfielder Dave Clements (b. 1945) scoring from close range. His goal came less than three minutes after Pele's and, according to reporter Gordy Holt, "stunned the Sounders -- still gawking at the awesome crowd" ("Pele Scores Twice ...").
Trailing 2-0, Sounders coach John Best (1940-2014) sent veteran midfielder Jimmy Gabriel (b. 1940) into the game in an attempt to steady his team. Gabriel, Best's assistant, scored on a header in the 65th minute. That was answered by Pele on another free kick in the closing minutes of the match.
In Defeat, a Double Triumph
Although the home team lost, local reaction could hardly have been more positive. The record turnout was considered a triumph both for the new building and for the sport. The Sounders had built a loyal fan base while playing at much smaller Memorial Stadium, but soccer was not considered a mainstream sport. In local popularity it trailed both University of Washington football and the Sonics, Seattle's National Basketball Association team, and would soon be upstaged by two new Kingdome tenants -- that fall by the Seahawks of the National Football League and the following spring by the Mariners of Major League Baseball.
Still, for that night, soccer was the city's undisputed king. With the new stadium and Pele adding appeal, more than 54,000 tickets had been sold by game day, leaving some 4,000 third-level seats available at the door. Nearly all those were snatched up, creating a near-capacity crowd. (Not all of the stadium's seats had yet been installed. By the time the Seahawks kicked off, the building held 66,000.) The Seattle Post-Intelligencer trumpeted the turnout as a national record; The Seattle Times went further, pronouncing it "the largest soccer gathering in the history of English-speaking North America" (Zimmerman). Veteran P-I sports columnist John Owen simply called it "astounding" ("Wanna Join ...").
Soccer insiders were floored. Said John Best, "A pre-season exhibition game has turned into a very significant event" (O'Connor). North American Soccer League commissioner Phil Woosnam (1932-2013) said, "I didn't expect anything like this this soon. This turnout in this great Kingdome will be a great stimulant to our sport. ... Within a decade, soccer will be the No. 1 sport in this country. This is a big night for soccer" (Zimmerman). Walt Daggatt (1919-2010), managing general partner for the Sounders, didn't go that far. He was just enjoying the moment: "Thank you, the world's greatest sports fans. If this is a dream, don't wake me up" (Zimmerman).
Rewriting the Record
The Sounders-Cosmos crowd was at the time the 14th-biggest in Seattle sports history, trailing 13 University of Washington football games played at Husky Stadium. It also was the state's biggest indoor gathering, not surprisingly, since the new dome was Washington's largest indoor-event venue.
The Kingdome record lasted only five weeks, however. On May 14, 1976, Rev. Billy Graham (1918-2018) and singer Johnny Cash (1932-2003) drew a crowd reported at 74,000 -- a record still standing on March 26, 2000, when the Kingdome was imploded to make way for a new outdoor stadium.