Pelé, The New York Cosmos, And How Atari Sank America’s Soccer League
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Recent World Cup enthusiasm has lifted Soccer to new heights of popularity in the United States, as the 2014 US National Team’s performance has fueled America’s interest in the sport even further. With such strong Soccer spirit, I can’t help but think of the incredible story of the New York Cosmos and their enduring legacy.
The Cosmos were one of the first professional American Soccer teams formed in the 1970s by a small group of entertainment moguls, led by Warner Communications founder Steve Ross. Ross was wildly passionate about bringing Soccer to America, and with Warner Communications backing the project, Steve Ross set out to capture Americans’ attention. He made Warner’s most recognizable icon, Buggs Bunny, the team mascot, brought in cheerleaders, and recruited the world’s most talented footballers to his dream team.
The Cosmos grew to include international stars Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, and Pelé, almost universally considered the best soccer player ever. Steve Ross signed Pelé to a record-breaking contract that at the time made him the highest paid athlete in the history of professional sports.
Pelé in particular provided a sense of distinction and publicity for the Cosmos, and for Soccer in America. Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State and an avid Soccer aficionado, was equally committed to bringing the sport of Soccer to America.
Kissinger believed Pelé would become a wonderful ambassador for Soccer in America and for his home country of Brazil, and lobbied Brazilian leaders to back Pelé’s move to New York. His efforts proved successful, and Henry Kissinger would go on to become one of the Cosmos most ardent fans.
The New York Cosmos were bursting at the seams with colorful personalities. Franz Beckenbauer was and still is an important part of international Soccer, Carlos Alberto was as talented as they come, and Shep Messing was loved for his outrageous style.
Probably the most notable personality on the team was Giorgio Chinaglia who liked to say that news about him went on the front page while the Pope landed on Page 3. Chinaglia had a rivalry of sorts with Pelé, wore silk robes to postgame news conferences, and formed a close relationship with Steve Ross who was often seen walking around in Chinaglia’s Soccer shorts.
Even playing alongside the legendary Pelé did not dampen his self-regard. He was known to let drop a criticism or two of Pelé, at one point saying he was “not playing on all cylinders.”
“I am Chinaglia! If I shoot from a place, it’s because Chinaglia can score from there!”
— Giorgio Chinaglia
Giorgio Chinaglia was extremely charismatic and loved being in the spotlight. A bulldog of a man reminiscent of Tony Soprano in looks and stature, Chinaglia habitually spoke of himself in the third person.
In a widely reported locker-room confrontation, Chinaglia complained that Pelé was “being stingy about passing to Chinaglia.” Pelé replied there was no point in passing to a striker who shot from impossible angles — to which Chinaglia leapt from his seat and bellowed “I am Chinaglia! If I shoot from a place, it’s because Chinaglia can score from there!”
The story of the New York Cosmos is documented in the film Once In A Lifetime (Below) currently running on Netflix.
“We were as big as the Yankees and bigger than the Giants. We had our own tables at all the clubs. But we weren’t any more decadent than players today.”
— Shep Messing
The Cosmos experienced a cosmic rise and fall, paralleling Atari’s tremendous success for Warner followed by a catastrophic fall of a cliff. The Cosmos won championships in 1972, 1977, 1978, 1980, and 1982, rising to immense popularity and selling out Giants Stadium before succumbing to financial woes stemming primarily from Warner Communications.
Steve Ross had been the founder of Warner Communications and widely considered to be the first media titan. He managed to build his father-in-law’s funeral home company and parking lots into the first media conglomerate, acquiring Panavision and DC Comics, before moving on to Warner Bros., Atlantic Records, Atari, the introduction of cable television in North America, the New York Cosmos, and the mega-merger with Time Magazine.
While he’s not often discussed among classic gamers, it was Ross who financially backed Atari and made the establishment of the video game industry possible. Atari, at least during its most prominent years, was his company.
As an aside, Steven Spielberg considered Steve Ross to be a father to him. Although Spielberg had a long-term relationship with Universal Studios, Ross was eager for him to make movies for Warner. Steve Ross’ grandest overture towards Spielberg was a $25 million payday — for the acquisition of the license to produce a video game based on E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. (By comparison, similar license deals were closer to $1 million.) Ross calculated that it was a small amount to pay to bring Steven Spielberg over to Warner.
It goes without saying that the E.T. debacle was not helpful. Though, in my opinion, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was not directly responsible for the video game crash, it was costly and damaging to both Atari and Warner Communications. The $25 million licensing deal, the production losses, taxes and negative PR piled on damage to the disaster. At much greater fault was the crash of the video game market in 1983.
Although, at great expense to Atari, Steve Ross was successful in bringing Spielberg to Warner Bros. The Gremlins franchise was a result of this.
Establishing an extra bit of fortitude in the financial and public relations realms may have taken the edge off the 1983 crash that nearly killed Atari, crippled Warner and sent the video game industry into conniption fits. Warner Communications’ stock price fell precipitously due to Atari’s incredible financial losses on Warner’s books. With Rupert Murdoch attempting a hostile takeover of Warner Communications, a decision was made to shed weight and strike losing properties from the books.
There were many factors in the decision to nix the New York Cosmos from their portfolio, though Atari’s role in nearly burning Warner Communications to the ground cannot be dismissed. It was only when Warner was no longer flush with windfall profits that they were faced with having to make these sorts of unfortunate decisions. Warner’s abandonment of the New York Cosmos reached beyond the team and affected the entire NASL.
Long term, the New York Cosmos seem to have fared better than Atari. 2013 saw the revival season of the Cosmos re-emerging as New York’s Soccer Club, with Pelé returning as honorary President. At the time of this writing, the Cosmos are currently league champions having won the title in 2013.
The Professor is a classic gaming aficionado, retro pop culture connoisseur, and a Senior Fellow at Atari I/O. In his real life, he holds two Ph.D.’s and works as a professor at an ivy league university in North America. In his free time he serves as a Moderator in the Atari I/O Forums under the name The Professor.