Behind the scenes, city native makes most of World Cup

June 16, 1994|By Bill Tanton

Just back from Finland, she is in Chicago now for tomorrow night's opening ceremonies for the world's biggest sports event.

Saturday she'll be back in Los Angeles, where she lives, for the West Coast's opening game.

Two weeks ago, she signed a check for $3 million.

She is responsible for a veritable army of workers and volunteers. In a lot of countries, 20,000 persons would constitute an army.

"I don't have 20,000 people working directly under me," she says, "but in my job I'm ultimately responsible for what they do.

"It's not as bad as it sounds. Whatever number of workers we need at one venue is times nine, because we're playing in nine venues. On average, that comes down to fewer than 3,000 people per venue."

The $3 million check?

"It was for a construction company in L.A.," she says. "One company didn't do all the work at nine venues. They subbed it out."

From now until the championship match at the Rose Bowl July 17, this 47-year-old dynamo will visit one site a day. On June 29 she'll be in Washington, the closest she'll come to her old hometown of Baltimore.

Her name is Eli Primrose-Smith. Her title is chief administrative officer for the U.S. World Cup Organizing Committee. The only host country person above her is president Alan Rothenberg.

Primrose-Smith is known here as Elizabeth McCleary, Roland Park Country School 1965 graduate and ex-K.C. Orchards swimming star. In '63 she won a gold medal in the Pan-American Games in Brazil.

Her father, retired Towson State professor Dr. John McCleary, coached swimming and tennis for many years. Her mother, Blanche, taught physical education at Calvert School for 23 years.

Liz, as her Baltimore friends know her, is entrusted with the details of this enormous event as the remaining 24 national teams play the final 52 games.

"This is what I like, putting all the pieces together, seeing that it all comes together as one great performance," she says. "I'm the glue that sticks all this together."

Her goal: "To put on the best World Cup ever."

"How're you going to do that," I asked, "when the United States is not even a real soccer country?"

"There are 16 million people playing soccer in this country," she said. "That's three times the population of Finland."

After two years of working on the World Cup, Primrose-Smith believes everything is ready.

Though the U.S. team is expected to make an early exit, ticket sales have been "phenomenal," she says

"Some of the venues we could have sold out five times over," she says. "We've sold out all but some preliminary games in L.A. That's because the stadium holds 104,000.

"Washington was one of the first to sell out, not only because of the demand from embassy people but because RFK Stadium only holds 55,000. When we get all our workers and the media people there, that cuts it to 51,000."

The cheapest ticket for any game is $25 for a preliminary. For the finals, a ticket costs $475.

"Scalpers are getting $2,000," says Primrose-Smith.

Hordes of foreign nationals are coming here to cheer on their own teams.

"As best we can tell," says Primrose-Smith, "there are between 500,000 and 1 million people coming to this country for World Cup.

"We were required to sell 35 percent of the tickets overseas. The Germans wanted twice the allotment that was sent to them. We estimate World Cup will mean $4 billion to the U.S. economy."

TV ratings, she says, "will be good internationally."

By the time it's all over, 30 billion viewers from 190 countries will have tuned in. The worldwide TV audience for the final, she says, will be 2 billion.

"No one knows how American TV audiences will respond," she says, "but in this country people who never watch sports watch the Olympic Games. We think those people will watch World Cup."

Primrose-Smith is no stranger to big-time sports management.

Being an ex-athlete herself, she helped raise funds for the 1980 Olympics. Her intelligence and energy, plus her experience in marketing and public relations, stood out.

A year later she was made associate vice president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. She worked closely with director Peter Ueberroth, who made the L.A. Olympics the first ever to turn a profit and went on to become commissioner of baseball.

Primrose-Smith became president and executive director of the 1991 U.S. Olympic Festival, a training ground for American athletes held in all but Olympic years.

It was a natural for her to go to work with World Cup USA94.

"I didn't plan any of this," she says. "I didn't overtly seek any of these jobs, including this one. I was asked to help. If you had asked me what I was going to be when I got out of Roland Park, I'd have said a biologist."

She went on to Stanford, where she became an All-America swimmer, settled in California (her daughter, Asher, graduated this year from UCLA) and eventually people began to ask for her help.

"I met the right people at the right time," she says, "and I happened to have the right skills."

One of the oldest cliches in explaining success says you have to be in the right place at the right time. Seldom mentioned is having the right skills.

Primrose-Smith has the whole package. Partly because of that, America's first World Cup should be well managed.

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