Women’s soccer is a risky move

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.

daughter Whitney, wife Debra, son Fitz Jr., and daughter Jordan.

Fitz Johnson (left) with his family: daughter Whitney, wife Debra, son Fitz Jr., and daughter Jordan.

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.

Whitney (left) and Jordan.

Fitz Johnson's soccer-playing daughters: Whitney (left) and Jordan.

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.

8 comments Add your comment

Madmommy

August 11th, 2009
7:58 am

I think it’s great that he is doing this. So what if he risks losing money, it’s his money to risk. I for one ref soccer and I don’t make much money doing it, but I played as a kid and it’s such a good feeling to know that you are giving back and can be a positive role model in a childs life. Sometimes it’s not all about the money.

Michael

August 11th, 2009
8:19 am

I’m pretty sure the Atlanta Beat drew that many people on a consistent basis. That league’s problem was it burned through money too quickly.

But if what this story said is true, I think the WPS team is in trouble. Playing games way the heck away from a lot of people in Kennesaw is NOT a good move. I heard that Kennesaw is a leading candidate for a potential MLS team to play, and I thought that was also a huge mistake. The soccer base around Atlanta is in Cobb and Gwinnett, but there are also a bunch of in-towners who are passionate for some big teams in other countries.

Kennesaw may be building a nice facility, but it’s too far away from the soccer epicenter. Long-term viability will require playing much closer to I-285.

AtlantaSoccerFan

August 11th, 2009
8:44 am

Michael, I somewhat disagree. I am a male that resides in the downtown area, but I definitely see myself making the drive to attend these games periodically. When a majority of your fan base resides beyond the downtown area (specifically the north side), you have to market to the audience. In this case, it means locating the team closer. As a soccer fan in Atlanta, I am desperately hoping for a MLS team (which appears to be a long ways off), but I plan to fully support this WPS team as not only a soccer fan but a fan of the city of Atlanta.

The article’s comparison of the WNBA to the WPS can not be weighed to heavily. I believe the main difference between both of these leagues is the ability to draw a diverse crowd. Women’s soccer can appeal to multiple audiences, including a male following. This is where I believe the WNBA falls short.

DawgMan

August 11th, 2009
10:59 am

Soccer in Atlanta will not work. They will be lucky to get 1,000 people out to Kennesaw to watch some boring sport that few have interest in. Instead, they should start a football team at Kennesaw State, which would be a lot more exciting and make money. I’d rather watch reruns of old Georgia games than go to a soccer game.

Matt Moosbrugger

August 11th, 2009
12:05 pm

As a Citadel graduate I find it great that another graduate is making a go at a hard task and I wish him well. However, to say that Johnson faced racism at The Citadel with no facts backing up that claim is a shame. I would hope that you back up this statement or issue an apology to the school. Tossing around statements without facts is more for the AJC editorial board – I would expect more.

Elizabeth

August 11th, 2009
1:54 pm

I can’t wait for more women’s soccer. My daughters and their soccer teams loved going to the Atlanta Beat games. They also liked it when the players came to their soccer clubs.

Good luck Fitz.

[...] 5,000 and 6,000 a game in a location that’s not very central to a heavily car-centered metro Atlanta area? With a [...]

b

January 8th, 2010
7:33 am

I can only hope that it does well. Soccer has been a huge part of our children’s lives. Right now our oldest is in college with an athletic scholarship playing soccer. Our youngest plays for club and in high school. We will be attending some games not all but quite a few. Remember the men’s World Cup is this summer which means a renewed interest in soccer! Good timing.