A publicity-hungry whale shark lurks behind Johnson, Gaston, Georgia State Soccer Association executive director Rick Skirvin (back row, left to right) and representative soccer tots. (Photo courtesy Hope-Beckham, Inc.)
I love soccer because of the Atlanta Beat, who played in powder blue uniforms on a downtown rectangle of grass purpose-built for 1996 Olympic field hockey. Since the Beat ceased operations in 2003 along with seven other teams in the Women’s United Soccer Association, the stadium’s water system has been vandalized at least twice. The college that inherited the 15,000-capacity venue, Morris Brown, founded by former slaves, has been crushed by debt and scandal. Water service has been cut off entirely; last week, the school announced that one of its classroom buildings, another Olympic legacy, would be auctioned on the steps of Fulton County Courthouse.
For two WUSA seasons, however, Herndon Stadium was a den of inflatable “thunder sticks” and home of omnipresent mascot Rhythm, a pastiche of dog and posturing hip-hop artist who once belched for broadcast over the loudspeakers. The Beat played the inaugural 2001 season at Bobby Dodd Stadium, drawing the ire of the Georgia Tech gridiron football coach. He grumbled at soccer players for leaving boot marks behind.
But there are even better memories. The Beat won its first two home matches of the last campaign by a combined score of 11–0. I was sure that I had never seen women’s soccer better played. Contingents of Latino fans whom stereotype suggests would never tolerate the women’s game waved Mexican flags in honor of Maribel Domínguez, dubbed “Marigol” by regional sport newspaper Estadio (see 25 Jul 07).
An annual Beat family picnic provided good barbecue and baked beans, which supporters ate on the Herndon pitch. My wife and I selected seats for 10 home matches with the connoisseurship of symphony goers who seek out places on the keyboard side. I tested several locations in the bleachers, settling on a north-facing midfield spot, slightly less exposed on Atlanta summer afternoons, with skyline view, some 25 rows above the grass surface. A concrete riser offered lumbar support.
With players from Canada, Germany, Japan and Mexico, the Beat, notwithstanding the Caribbean and Eastern European imports on the baseball Braves and Thrashers of the National Hockey League, added a hint of the exotic to an otherwise homogenous regional sportscape. (Now the Silverbacks of the United Soccer Leagues, both women’s and men’s teams, offer similar diversity.) Two players from the People’s Republic of China added another linguistic and political overlay. The cultural clash was especially poignant when Sun Wen, the sublime striker-midfielder hybrid with technician’s touch was, in 2001, the team’s only non-English-speaker.
To the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sun described her feelings as xiangjiade, “thinking of home” (Michelle Hiskey, “Home at Last,” 25 May 02, H1, H2). In 2002, China teammate Liping Wang joined the side to take the edge off isolation exacerbated by Sun’s late-career injury problems. To teammates she was “Sunny.” I think supporters saw into her personality at halftime of a 2001 playoff match against Philadelphia. Down 0–2, the Beat brought on a previously scheduled team of Frisbee-catching dogs. Sun was a halftime substitute but spent much of the warmup period mesmerized by the dogs’ routine. In my memory she reached to give one a pat.
At the center circle soon afterward she slapped forward Cindy Parlow‘s hands. The Beat won 3–2 in extra time.
Such positive feelings should help the new Atlanta team scheduled to join the Women’s Professional Soccer league in 2010. On the other hand, owner T. Fitz Johnson will have to provide his team its own identity, notwithstanding his obvious affection for the team name (“it’s a great brand”) and for ritualized components of a women’s fixture in these United States: screeching pre-teen girls, Smashmouth blasting over the tannoy and face painting.
An important difference between the two league structures is that Johnson, without the backing of the Cox media conglomerate that financed the original Beat and San Diego Spirit, will be able to negotiate with players and control daily operations free of a league-dominated infrastructure. Team publicists and longtime members of Atlanta’s soccer community at a Georgia Aquarium press event earlier this month expressed frustration that the Beat had excelled on the field and in attracting crowds but had to go along when investors abandoned the league on the eve of the 2003 Women’s World Cup.
Persistence from Tonya Antonucci, who formed the Women’s Soccer Initiative in 2004, and that of other believers has seen franchises formed, or re-formed, in Boston; Chicago; Los Angeles; New Jersey; Saint Louis; Santa Clara, California; and Washington, DC. The first season begins Mar 29. Atlanta and Philadelphia are planned as expansion teams in 2010. The second chance for women’s pro soccer might be its last according to Marilyn Childress, a strong advocate for the game who helped secure its introduction as an Olympic medal sport in Atlanta in 1996:
This is a chance to be able to survive. I’m concerned with the economy starting out a new league, but this is going to be a chance that I don’t think will be available down the road. We need to take it by the horns and try to get it to go. It’s very important for the sport. It’s very important for women’s sports.
In a retracting economy that has seen the loss of one team (Houston) in the Women’s National Basketball Association and layoffs in the National Football League and NBA, Atlanta and the WPS hope to trade on the sport’s intimacy and to offer advertisers unique value. Puma already has signed on as a league-wide sponsor. Playing in small venues—Yurcak Field at Rutgers University in New Jersey, for example, will seat 5,000 for home games of Sky Blue FC—the WPS might be the perfect downscaled sport for downscaled times.
Franchises in the women’s league cost $1.5 million compared to $40 million in Major League Soccer. The Wall Street Journal continued a prospectus on Dec 15 by concluding that the WPS “will more closely resemble minor league baseball than Major League Soccer” (Matthew Futterman, “Women’s Pro Soccer League Scores Deal with Puma,” subscription only). As for the “beer an inning” challenge that sometimes prevails at minor-league ballparks, perhaps we could substitute a beer for every throw-in?
One person touting the league’s revised economic plan was Leslie Gaston, a former Beat player who deserved steadier nerve from investors than what she and colleagues got in Sept 03. Having persisted as a defender at the University of North Carolina despite 11 knee surgeries, she was selected 10th overall by the Atlanta Beat in 2003. She says she “was devastated when the league folded because I loved playing and hoped, given that I continued making rosters, that I was going to continue playing for another four or five years.”
Unsure about opportunities overseas, Gaston found work in marketing at the Journal-Constitution. She also played for the Atlanta Silverbacks of the W-League and forms part of the inner circle of advisers who have begun to lay groundwork for the Beat’s successor.
Georgia’s place in women’s soccer history already should be secure. Grassroots work by the North American Soccer League’s Atlanta Chiefs in the late 1960s (see 4 Oct 08) led in 1971 to one of the nation’s first all-girls’ leagues at the Decatur-DeKalb YMCA. Title IX–inspired activism established girls’ soccer in Atlanta-area schools, followed, of course, by the U.S. women’s gold medal in Athens.
Johnson represents one of the new generation of enlightened soccer dads. One of his daughters, Jordan, recently completed her freshman season at Texas Tech, led by former Beat coach and current national U-20 assistant Tom Stone. Johnson played for both club and high school (Woodbridge) in suburban Virginia. He excelled, however, as a wrestler and competed for the Citadel, a military college in Charleston, South Carolina, in the National Collegiate Athletic Association championships.
Before becoming CEO with an Atlanta-based military contractor, he earned coaching qualifications and guided his daughters’ teams from U4 through U19. His son plays soccer at Marietta High School and numbers among some 75,000 youth players registered in Georgia. We were impressed that, shunning the domestic vernacular, Johnson at the press conference used the terms “pitch” and “boots”—residue perhaps of a 20-year military career and his international experience, or of weekend mornings glued to Fox Soccer Channel.
Although his resources expanded when the consulting firm his father started became a Lockheed Martin subsidiary in May, Johnson offers a contrasting portfolio to the Russian oligarchs portrayed in a recent Sports Illustrated. Some of the latter are splashing out up to $7 million per year on women’s basketball teams. Compared to playing for the Spartak team owned by Shabtai von Kalmanovic, Diana Taurasi quips that “the WNBA is, like, communist” (see Alexander Wolff, “To Russia with Love,” Dec 15).
Johnson is likely more approachable than these Russian counterparts. He gladly schmoozed with a young player who, inspired by sea creatures floating in turquoise aquarium water, suggested “Stingrays” as a possible team nickname. (The team announces its name on 25 Apr 09 after online voting; “Stingrays” is one of the early choices.)
Johnson said that stadium options are in process but acknowledged pressure coming from the region’s suburban soccer lobby. They would prefer a location, in local lingo, “outside the Perimeter,” the ring road that, roughly speaking, separates suburb from city. As mentioned, the Beat had played in a stadium with rapid-transit access. Herndon Stadium, near the eponymous Herndon Home, was situated in Vine City, a historically African American neighborhood settled in the 19th century. Martin Luther King Jr., following generations of the city’s black leaders, lived there with his family on Sunset Street.
We either took a MARTA train to Beat games or parked at the 125-year-old Christian Methodist Episcopal church across the street. Should the new side realize Johnson’s ambitions of signing top international talent such as Marta Vieira da Silva—already signed by Los Angeles Sol—it would have a ready-made marketing slogan: “Riding Marta to the WPS Cup.”
But one possible site for hosting the top tier of Atlanta soccer is Kennesaw State University, a women’s soccer power that won the Division II NCAA championship in its second season in 2005. It is now in Division I. By Johnson’s reckoning, 95 percent of the area’s youth-soccer registrants live in such exurban zones, primarily to the north.
Questions of how the WPS team connects with the existing soccer establishment will have to be navigated soon. One issue, as in the league as a whole, is whether the women’s team will link with a potential MLS team backed by home-improvement magnate and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank. He submitted an official bid to MLS in October. Or will the second-generation Beat go against the grain and reclaim an inner-city patch that, when the Beat played there, gave credence to residents’ belief that “we black folks have something to offer in our communities” (Chandra R. Thomas, “Beat’s Move Lifts Inner City,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 8 Aug 02)?
Ties to the MLS will be closer than during the three-year WUSA experiment. The WPS already uses the men’s league’s marketing arm—the group that shrewdly purchased television rights to the 2002 World Cup finals and that arranges summer barnstorming trips from European sides—for its promotion.
Whatever happens, the Beat legacy is established. As Georgia State Soccer Association executive director Rick Skirvin said at the press conference, 45 percent of the 90,000 registered players in the state are female. Maribel Domínguez Castelán, Homare Sawa, Charmaine Hooper, Conny Pohlers, Sun Wen … they brought the global game to me.
I will forever be grateful.
For an article and podcast on the development of the women’s soccer program at Spelman College, part of the Atlanta University Center consortium south of downtown, see 23 Aug 07. We have also interviewed Nel Fettig Hayes, formerly of the WUSA’s New York Power and Carolina Courage, on the prospects for women’s pro soccer (24 Aug 07). On soccer and the civil rights movement, see 5 Feb 08.
As of mid-Jan 09, Blank had withdrawn his bid for an MLS team in Atlanta in 2011, although 2013 remains possible. “In this economy, the discussions don’t make sense,” Cobb County commission chairman Sam Olens told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Dan Chapman, “Blank Won’t Bring Soccer Team to Atlanta by 2011,” Jan 15).