The World's Game In The Heart of the Sun Belt

Will the new Atlanta Beat be sold like the old?

I don’t want to sound like I’m writing off the prospects of the new Atlanta Beat — as well as the Women’s Professional Soccer league — before the team gets off the ground. And not just because of the current economic predicament.

But new Beat owner Fitz Johnson is making some rather generous attendance projections when his team plays its inaugural season next spring, most likely at Kennesaw State’s new soccer facility.

Between 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 fan base of young families with children that’s typically overscheduled with youth leagues, swimming lessons, vacations and other summer activities?

League-wide WPS has not averaged even that lowest figure as its first season heads into the playoffs this weekend. Its business model certainly is scaled down financially from the Women’s United Soccer Association, with team budgets around $500k each. That sounds like a reasonable amount of money, given the fixed costs of stadium rentals and cross-country travel.

I understand how difficult it is to garner media attention, corporate sponsors and partnerships and other business deals if the stated attendance estimates are any lower than what’s being said now. But the original Atlanta Beat did well to get those numbers even with some of the most vigorous marketing and promotional work in the WUSA.

Johnson speaks fondly of how he enjoyed taking his young, soccer-playing daughters to Beat games, which were models of the family-friendly marketing efforts the league felt were vital to its chances. But getting the attention of adults who aren’t van-driving parents — we’re talking about young males here — may require the kind of bad-girl presence that St. Louis goalkeeper Hope Solo provides in heavy doses. Her Athletica team has made the post-season, and anything’s bound to happen with her in the nets. Says WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci:

“The WUSA sort of had a focus on preteen, ponytailed girls who aspired to play soccer someday, and so their messaging was around ‘cause marketing’: ‘This league is something girls deserve to have, and as a fan you ought to support this.’ We’re presenting an environment that’s not about babysitting kids but is an opportunity to watch the best and be entertained by the best.”

Solo’s got no use for the girly-girly stuff:

“For some reason, people want to think that we’re girls next door, who all get along and go shopping at the mall together. Treat us like professional athletes.”

I’m all for marketing the games played by adults to adults, and I think women’s soccer needs more bad girls like Solo. That was one of my chief complaints against WUSA’s marketing strategy. It was a shame that it was geared mostly to kids, given the individuals I enjoyed covering in Atlanta during those years.

The original Beat team had personality players like Charmaine Hooper, Briana Scurry and Nikki Serlenga that many grown-ups admired, and a personality coach and a great quote in Tom Stone. The players liked to bust his chops, and he was happy to bite back. But that dynamic existed mostly behind the scenes.

Still, Stone said plenty for public consumption, and loved being a lightning rod in a league where most of his counterparts went out of their way to be unprovocative.

During the Beat’s first season in 2001, the team played at Bobby Dodd Stadium, which prompted then-Georgia Tech football coach George O’Leary to grouse that the turf would be “torn up” by the time gridiron season arrived. Stone quipped, “I’ll ask my 120-pound players to take it easy on the field.”

The day the WUSA folded in 2003, I told him I had heard reports that young girls around metro Atlanta were crying upon hearing the news. Said Stone: “If more of those girls’ parents had brought them to our games, they wouldn’t be crying today.”

If the new Beat has characters like that, they should be able to market to adults and kids alike.

But I just don’t know if the kind of edge that Solo brings will work down here in Steel Magnolia country.

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