100 Moments: Attendance Records Shattered at the 1984 Olympics
In 1974, FIFA selected Colombia to host the 1986 FIFA World Cup for the first time in the nation’s history. However, due to an inability to meet the terms FIFA demanded, especially on a financial level, Colombia resigned the right to host the event in 1982 and the search for a new host began.
The U.S., considered a soccer novice in the world, jumped at the chance to host the biggest tournament in the world and put in a bid to replace Colombia. America had the stadiums, the transportation and the knowledge to put on big-time events. Despite the impressive resume, on May 20, 1983, FIFA decided to award the World Cup to Mexico, a country that had hosted the event 13 years earlier and would become the first in the world to host two World Cups.
Why? The reason wasn’t so much what Mexico offered as compared to what FIFA feared the U.S. did not.
“FIFA was always afraid that if they brought the World Cup to the United States they’d be embarrassed with empty stadiums,” said Alan Rothenberg, who was the President of U.S. Soccer from 1990-1998.
Despite missing out on the opportunity to host a World Cup, U.S. Soccer didn’t veer from its goal to host the event. But the Federation knew it needed to show FIFA it could fill stadiums with soccer fans.
A year later, the U.S. did just that during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
“When they took the World Cup away from Colombia we came close,” Rothenberg said. “We put a bid in but they picked Mexico. They were just afraid the U.S. wasn’t ready, but the turning point really was when we sold out stadiums all across the country for the ’84 Olympics.”
Rothenberg was asked to be commissioner of soccer for the games by Peter Ueberroth, who was serving as the organizer for the ’84 Olympics. Despite billing countless hours as an attorney in Los Angeles, Rothenberg accepted and proceeded to conduct one of the seminal events in American sports history.
“I was managing partner at my law firm at the time and busy as can be,” Rothenberg said, “I did it because I knew FIFA was so well-organized and there wouldn’t be a lot of demand on my time in the lead-up period. So I said ‘I’ll do it’ and thankfully I did: It was a great experience.”
Attendance at the games was unprecedented. The tournament shattered every attendance record there was for soccer games in the U.S. and even today, the three highest attended games in history all took place at the ’84 Olympics. The 101,799 people who took in the gold medal game between Brazil and France at the Rose Bowl is a record that’s yet to be threatened. Overall 1,425,541 people attended games at the ’84 Olympics, an average of 44,548 spectators per match.
“It wasn’t just the Rose Bowl, which we sold out three times, or Stanford Stadium but we played games on the east coast, at Harvard and Annapolis and sold those out,” said Rothenberg. “The (soccer) tournament in 1984 actually outdrew track and field, which was the first time that had ever happened. Suddenly, FIFA looked around and said ‘maybe we could bring a World Cup to the United States and we won’t be embarrassed.”
The soccer tournament not only outdrew the marquee sports, but also equaled the attendance of every other event combined. Most importantly, it sent the message the U.S. was capable of putting on a world-class soccer tournament and that an American audience for the game existed with resounding enthusiasm.
The impressive attendance during the 1984 Olympics led to the selection of the United States four years later to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup, which unsurprisingly would set attendance records for the tournament. The average attendance of 69,000 at the ’94 World Cup is a record that still stands today.