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Will new sports craze propel New Jersey to star status?

It's not that New Jersey has never been No. 1. It's just that the titles weren't always ones that residents wanted to remember. True, the state does top the Environmental Protection Agency's list of toxic-waste sites eligible for federal funds. Its new resorts in Atlantic City lead the nation in bringing in gamblers, far outstripping their Las Vegas competitors. It is also the nation's most densely populated state - nearly 1,000 people per square mile - a distinction that has brought with it a struggle with crime, poverty, and urban blight.

But now New Jerseyites are trying on another title many find more pleasing: home of the Meadowlands Sports Complex, the No. 1 sports facility in the United States - and perhaps the world.

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Across the Hudson River from Manhattan, a cluster of three massive white buildings (football stadium, indoor arena, race track) now rises out of a vast field of 27,000 parking spaces. What once was swampland and industrial litter has been transformed into a sports and entertainment mecca, drawing more than 8. 2 million visitors last year.

Do you like big-time college football? Next August, the Meadowlands' Kickoff Classic will pit the defending national champion Penn State against No. 3-ranked Nebraska.

Prefer pro football? The Giants deserted New York years ago to play in New Jersey in what many observers say is the nicest stadium in the country. They've been joined this spring by the US Football League's New Jersey Generals, who lured Heisman Trophy-winner Herschel Walker into a professional uniform. The team sold 38,000 season tickets before it ever played a home game and drew an impressive 53,000 fans in all to that opener.

The list goes on. Major college and pro basketball? Yes. Ice hockey? The New Jersey Devils just arrived this season. Pro soccer? The Cosmos, perennial league champs, play here. Top-level track and field? The indoor record for the mile was shattered at a meet here recently. Wrestling? Next year's collegiate finals.

And don't forget the nonsports events, everything from ice shows to circuses, industrial equipment shows, horse shows, even something called a hot-rod truck and tractor pull.

Any state might be happy to attract these events. But somehow in New Jersey, it means more. Why? Because each new team or event is another step out of the shadow of two giant neighbors.

To put it delicately, the state has an image problem. Anyone who travels the northern New Jersey - with its oil depots, chemical plants, and urban congestion - knows that much of the Garden State is no garden. But worse, because of a geographic quirk, New Jersey has developed no core city to stand as a cultural and physical center for the state. Even two centuries ago James Madison recognized it. He called the state ''a cask tapped at both ends,'' its residents tied economically and psychologically to New York City and Philadelphia, two of the world's largest cities, which lie on its eastern and western borders.

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''New Jersey has been a state with a second-class image,'' says Les Unger, a native of the state and public affairs director for the 76,000-seat outdoor stadium and 20,000-seat indoor arena at the Meadowlands. He says the lack of a big media center has hurt the state's ability to project an image of its own. ''People here know more about the mayor of New York or the governor than they do their own state,'' he says. ''And in southern New Jersey, the same is true of Philadelphia. We don't even have our own (VHF) TV station.''

It may be too much to say that the sports complex - standing cheek by jowl with New York City in the northeast corner of the state - provides that center. But it certainly has helped.

''It has enhanced the image of the state . . . by becoming the premier sports complex in the country,'' argues Robert E. Mulcahy III, chief executive officer of the state-run New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which operates the complex. ''It's enabled the people of the state to feel a tremendous sense of pride in the accomplishments at the complex.''

Not to be neglected, he adds, are the economic benefits being brought to the state - including $82 million in excess revenue returned to state coffers since the facility opened in 1976. Meadowlands officials say building the 750-acre sports complex on garbage-strewn marshland - which farsighted former Gov. William Cahill once called the ''most valuable piece of undeveloped real estate in the world'' - has resulted in $450 million of private development. Hotels, restaurants, and office buildings have sprouted in the surrounding 19,000-acre Meadowlands district, which spreads across two counties.

A source of state pride, it's also a source of tourist dollars. ''We feel it's a major attraction'' to visitors, says Victoria Schmidt, director of the state's Division of Travel and Tourism. ''There's no question,'' she says, that it's brought a large number of visitors, people ''who might not have come before.''

The Meadowlands is a prominent part of New Jersey's new radio and television campaign aimed at tourists, beginning this spring. But it is far from the only attraction, says the director of tourism. ''People don't realize what New Jersey has,'' she says. For instance, 44 percent of the land is covered by forest. The state boasts ''the finest beaches in the world,'' mountains, camping, ski areas, and ''more historic sites than any other state in the Union.''

The Meadowlands is now developing another of the state's hidden resources, says Les Unger: thousands of ''hungry'' sports fans eager for their own teams to follow and support.

For years, the Meadowlands received thousands of letters requesting season tickets for professional hockey games. The only problem: It had no hockey team. Attracted by a new arena and hockey-hungry fans, the Devils moved in last fall. After drawing the fewest fans in the league in Denver (where they were known as the Colorado Rockies), the team has averaged a more-than-respectable 13,000 fans per home game in New Jersey, and occasionally sells all 19,000 seats. Although a young, new team with far more losses than wins so far, it already has a devoted fan club and thousands of season ticket holders, known as ''Devils advocates.''

Indicative of state pride has been the continued criticism by the New Jersey press and public of the New York Giants for failing to change their name to the New Jersey Giants. But with a long tradition as a New York team, and with every game sold out with thousands more fans waiting for tickets, the club has no need to relent, Meadowlands officials say.

For the New Jersey Nets, Devils, and Generals, who carry the state's name, fan loyalty is mounting quickly. At a recent Devils game the once-beloved New York Rangers received a 50-50 mix of cheers and boos when the score of their game was announced. Similarly, the New York Islanders, who once had a strong following on this side of the Hudson, were roundly boged.

''Traditionally, [northern] New Jersey fans have been New York fans,'' Unger explains. ''Until 1976, that's all they had.'' For a time, he says, each of the new pro teams playing here is ''a visitor in their own building'' when it plays a New York team. ''Until any of our teams win, and win big, that syndrome is still going to be there.''

With 5.5 million people living in Trenton and northward, New Jersey has ample population to support its own teams, says Unger. Although the complex is only a 15-minute drive from Manhattan, the pro teams based here ''really don't have to go across the river'' to find enough fans.

Established by the Legislature, backed by three New Jersey governors, financed by $450 million in bonds sold largely to New Jersey banks and industries, the Meadowlands does not try to hide its state identity. ''New Yorkers like to think the Meadowlands is part of New York, but it's not. It's New Jersey,'' says George Wirt, Meadowlands' director of public affairs.

Although an estimated 80 percent of visitors are New Jersey natives, Meadowlands officials say they have no intention of ignoring the rest of the 18 million people who live within an hour's drive of the complex. But to attract them, officials say, the facility will have to continue to provide top attractions.

''We think the people here are sophisticated fans,'' says Unger. ''They can turn on their television and have 7 to 50 TV channels available to them with cable. They can see the best. They don't want to settle for a product that isn't on that level.''

That's why the Meadowlands has sought out teams from outside the region to play there, he says. This winter, for example, the arena has offered big-time college basketball featuring match-ups such as Kentucky-North Carolina and Virginia-Missouri. ''Those are the best,'' Unger says. ''And that's what we're after.''

In a single week in late February, he notes, the two top candidates for the cover of Sports Illustrated were athletes with ties to the Meadowlands - football player Herschel Walker and runner Eamonn Coghlan, who had just set an indoor record for the mile at the Meadowlands. ''Just watch,'' he told a visitor at that time, ''one of them will be on the cover.'' (It was Walker.) ''That's where we're at with this facility.''

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