Fitz Johnson appears to be a sharp Marietta entrepreneur who scored big when he sold his family’s defense contracting business to Lockheed Martin last year. Revenue for his Eagle Group International was in the $175 million range at the time.
So why would Johnson, still with all of his faculties at 45, decide to invest $2.5 million to bring women’s pro soccer back to Atlanta next year? The sport already failed once here, as did the league it was in.
Does Johnson have money to burn?
“No one can lose $2.5 million and live comfortably,” he said.
But Johnson took the plunge, as many team owners do, for personal reasons that can overshadow financial ones. Those reasons begin with his twin daughters, Jordan and Whitney.
Ever since they were 4-year-olds, Johnson coached their soccer teams, witnessing firsthand how playing the sport contributed to their self-confidence and maturity. Having coached youth soccer, I can understand that.
“Sports played a huge role in our lives,” Jordan said. “It teaches you leadership skills.”
Those skills have come in handy for his daughters, now 19-year-old college students. They’ve also helped his 18-year-old son, Fitz Jr., as well as some of the other kids who have come into contact with Johnson’s coaching and fatherly ways.
Now, however, Johnson has taken a leap way beyond youth soccer. He’s no stranger to challenges as an African-American who experienced racism at The Citadel. After graduating, he served in the U.S. Army for 10 years, followed by 11 years in the Reserves.
But making it financially in a minor sport will test all of his mettle — and then some. I have covered many sports business stories through the years, learning two important lessons:
– Sports is not like any other business. For example, many teams lose money year after year, yet appreciate in value year after year. That’s generally not a path to riches in the business world, but it can be in major team sports.
Women’s pro soccer, however, is not a major sport in America. So the bottom line becomes very important for survival. But there’s generally lots of red ink in minor team sports.
– There is a huge difference between a spectator sport and a participatory sport. Tackle football is the nation’s biggest spectator sport, even though relatively few fans suit up with helmets and pads after they turn 18. Conversely, millions of kids kick soccer balls around in recreation leagues each year, but that is no guarantee for putting buns in seats at pro games.
What’s more, just last week two additional doses of bad news hit minor team sports. The financially strapped Arena Football League ceased operations and so will its local team, the Arthur Blank-owned Georgia Force.
On the women’s basketball front, the owner of the Atlanta Dream, Ron Terwilliger, wants to bail out as primary owner of the WNBA team.
Johnson swears he’s done his homework and has a workable business strategy. He says he needs about 5,000 to 6,000 paying fans to attend each home game, which will likely be played at Kennesaw State University’s planned soccer stadium. Reaching that attendance consistently will not be easy.
I wish him all the luck in the world. Our community will benefit from women’s soccer.
But the odds are against him. More than anything, I hope he proves me wrong.