On a winter night in 1987, “Jailhouse Rock” blasted over the Tacoma Dome loudspeakers as Brian Boitano, wearing a tight blue outfit, performed a series of running turns, then spun to a stop at center ice.
The future Olympic gold medalist thrust his right hand toward the ceiling, his left hand out to his side and smiled. He had defended his national championship. The largest crowd in the history of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships stood and roared its approval.
The event drew 53,577 people for the week and was broadcast around the country on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”
Twenty-eight years later, local sports historians Marc Blau and Doug McArthur still consider the skating championships the biggest sporting event in Pierce County history.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
They’re also the first to say that, until the U.S. Open golf tournament tees off June 18, a case could be made for other events.
Tacoma and Seattle hosted the Olympic-style Goodwill Games in 1990. The Tacoma Dome was home to women’s basketball Final Fours in 1988 and 1989 and the NBA playoffs in 1995. And in 1941, the city threw a parade and added extra seating to Stadium Bowl so 26,000 could watch Washington State College and Texas A&M play in the Evergreen Bowl.
“At the time, these were all a big deal,” McArthur said. “... But compared to the U.S. Open, they’re all a distant second.”
This is a point Pierce County executive Pat McCarthy hopes South Sound residents appreciate as the U.S. Open unfolds at Chambers Bay. With more than 200,000 spectators expected for the week, an international TV audience and one of golf’s most prestigious titles on the line, the U.S. Open is the biggest sporting event in South Sound history.
“This is the equivalent to a number of Super Bowls,” McCarthy said. “It is a big deal.”
The man the NCAA credits with transforming its Division I basketball tournament into the cultural phenomenon known as March Madness, also had a hand in some of Pierce County’s biggest sporting events.
“I’ve always been very impressed with the people of Tacoma when they get involved in a project,” said Bob Walsh, a sporting event producer who brought three Final Fours to Seattle’s Kingdome. “The people are passionate about their community and really come together to make the events happen.”
When the Tacoma Dome opened in 1983, Walsh saw an opportunity to help bring more sporting events to Western Washington.
Some of the Dome’s early events didn’t go so well. The 1985 Diamond Bowl, the NCAA Division I-AA championship game, needed to draw 12,000 to break even. A crowd of 5,306 watched Georgia Southern overcome a 28-6 deficit to beat Furman 44-42. The crowd was even smaller the next year and the event moved on to Pocatello, Idaho.
Undeterred, Walsh persuaded the NCAA to bring the Women’s Final Four to Tacoma in 1988 and 1989. Both set attendance records.
“The NCAA was very happy with those events,” Walsh said. “And the people were really into it.”
The crowds (17,167 in 1988 and 18,788 in 1989) capped a 3-year run of attendance records in the Dome.
In 1987, four months after setting the U.S. Figure Skating attendance mark, 20,284 packed the Dome for a Tacoma Stars playoff game against Dallas. Four nights later, 21,728 watched the Stars lose the decisive game. The crowds remain the two largest in indoor soccer history.
However, the Dome isn’t big enough to break the record for what’s believed to be the largest crowd for a Pierce County sporting event. On Dec. 6, 1941, Texas A&M beat Washington State 7-0 in front of 26,000 at Stadium Bowl.
Tacoma didn’t have long to celebrate the event. The next morning, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
Almost 74 years later, the attendance mark is expected to be eclipsed every day for a week at Chambers Bay.
“We’ve had some big events, but you add them all up and you still don’t have a U.S. Open,” McArthur said.
After the United States boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, media mogul Ted Turner hatched an idea for the Goodwill Games.
Walsh worked with Turner, who launched the games in Moscow in 1986 and then staged the second games in Washington in 1990.
The Goodwill Games, consisting of many of the same sports as the Olympics, drew the world’s best athletes, but, with one notable exception, was not a financial success.
Walsh says the 1990 games, held predominantly in King County, turned a small profit for the organizing committee. Part of the reason was Tacoma’s role in the games.
The baseball tournament was played at Cheney Stadium while the Tacoma Dome worked overtime hosting gymnastics, figure skating and the hockey finals.
“Just about everything sold out,” Walsh said. “The games got some criticism, but in terms of attendance it was very successful.”
And, while TV ratings weren’t good, images of the Northwest were beamed around the world.
“Several years ago when I was in China, I talked to a sumo wrestler,” Walsh said. “He told me he watched the Goodwill Games on TV in Mongolia.”
McArthur broadcast gymnastics back to the Soviet Union, where his commentary was translated into Russian.
The U.S. Open has a global reach too, but on a larger scale.
“We’ve never had an opportunity like this,” McCarthy said. “It’s a chance to promote our area and the Pacific Northwest. It’s a great benefit to our area.”
The U.S. Open might still be two weeks away, but Dean Burke of Tacoma South Sound Sports says there’s already a question buzzing in the air.
“It’s what everybody is asking right now: What’s next?” said Burke, director of the organization promoting the South Sound as a place to stage amateur sporting events.
He has several ideas, none of them on the scale of the U.S. Open.
Burke says he wants Pierce County to be known as “the Wrigley Field of cyclocross” and hopes to lure the national championship and perhaps even a World Cup race to Fort Steilacoom Park someday. He envisions major mountain bike races at Swan Creek Park. A professional FootGolf tournament with an international field of more than 1,000 is scheduled for Aug. 6-9 at Meadow Park Golf Course.
Will a successful U.S. Open open the door for bigger events?
“I think it will be a case-by-case basis; you still need the right venue,” Burke said. “You can’t make the wrong key fit the right key hole.”
Burke is among those who believe the Tacoma Dome’s interior needs an upgrade to make it a more appealing venue for many sporting events.
Walsh believes Tacoma could be a regular destination for national figure skating and gymnastics championships. The directors of the national organizations for both sports were involved in the 1990 Goodwill Games.
“They both love Tacoma and know events can be successful there because they have been already,” Walsh said.
Blau sees Pierce County’s future success in hosting sporting events coming from the same place it always has. From the community getting excited about hosting the events.
He hopes the U.S. Open will stoke that passion.
“It can rejuvenate you,” Blau said. “If it’s done and we can say ‘It was fun’ and ‘It was good for the community,’ that is an important piece of the puzzle. Not just showing the world what we can do, but showing our people here in Tacoma what we can do.”
The ultimate prize to come out of the U.S. Open, McCarthy said, would be an ongoing relationship with the USGA. “Maybe the chance to do this again in the future,” she said.
She’d also like to see other big events come to the area, even if they aren’t in Pierce County. “Everybody has Super Bowl fever around here the last few years,” McCarthy said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Super Bowl in the Pacific Northwest?”
Walsh has been down that road before. He was part of Seattle’s bid committee that narrowly lost out to Minneapolis for the right to host the 1992 Super Bowl. He believes persuading the NFL to come to the Northwest is a longshot.
Nevertheless, the bar for sporting events in the South Sound is about to be lifted, and McCarthy isn’t afraid to dream big. “I think the sky is the limit.”