Soccer Down Here
"I said the heck with that" Atlanta's links to professional soccer in the first half of 1978
Harry Mangurian pursued a NASL franchise for Atlanta, but pulled the plug on the endeavor when he was unable to acquire use of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Just a few days after it was revealed that Atlanta did not make the next list of potential cities for NASL expansion, it was announced that Mangurian would be launching a team in Memphis instead. Things looked bleak for the future of professional soccer in Atlanta, but American soccer often changed very quickly in the late 1970’s. Atlanta was in for a busy 12 months on the soccer front.
At New York’s Essex House, Atlanta was included as one of eight cities that would form the Major Indoor Soccer League with the Omni as the home arena for the Atlanta franchise. The league was slated to kickoff in January 1979 and hoped to have twelve teams at launch. Earl Foreman, whose Virginia Squires folded immediately before the American Basketball Association’s merger with the National Basketball Association, claimed the Omni was one of eight arenas who had “agreed to make financial commitments” to launch the league and expansion franchises were going for $25,000 (Hank Gola, “Major indoor soccer league in the works” C-2).
Bob Kent, the president of the Omni Coliseum (and the NBA’s Hawks and NHL’s Flames), saw the conversations between Foreman’s new league and his building a little differently (George Cunningham, “Indoor Soccer Here? Maybe” 1-D). “Talks of an indoor soccer league have been going on for a year and a half. All the way I have made it abundantly clear that we (the Omni) weren’t about to gnaw on another franchise. We would be interested in housing another team, but we wouldn’t be interested in making a substantial investment in another franchise.”
One thing Kent did not want to gnaw on was losing money. He said that the building “probably would make $750,000” while the Flames were set to lose in the neighborhood of $900,000. “I couldn’t get a firm handle on the precise operating cost of a soccer team,” Kent told the Atlanta Constitution’s George Cunningham. “They said probably $500,000 a year and I said the heck with that.” Kent finished his interview with Cunningham saying that while the Omni would “work in a reasonable fashion with anyone who wanted to put a franchise here,” they were not going to be the source of the capital required to run the team.
Meanwhile, the NASL continued adding teams for its 1978 season. Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, and Peter Frampton were part of twenty investors who were bringing a team to Philadelphia (“Sports This Morning” 2-C). Muhammad Ali was part of the group seeking a team for Montreal and competing with Boston and Houston for two slots. Was there a celebrity interested in bringing the NASL back to Atlanta?
With the NASL exploring having its teams operate indoors in the winter and the MISL targeting a launch, it made perfect sense for another league to try to get off the ground. The International Indoor Soccer League was backed by Florida builder Norm Johnson and they planned to start in May 1978 (“Indoor Soccer League May Come to Atlanta” 2-D). The IISL was run by Bill Putnam, the former president of the Omni Group who launched and folded the Atlanta Apollos in 1973. League officials said that franchises already included in the league were Atlanta, Birmingham, Miami, New England, and Washington, DC. Other potential locations for teams included Providence, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and New York. Reportedly, there was another indoor league that was looking at a summer start and the Omni was in discussions with them as well.
Remember Memphis? Harry Mangurian and Bill Marcum were putting things together there for the start of their inaugural season that started on April 1. However, Rebecca Linn wrote in the March 10 edition of the Atlanta Constitution that the Rogues were nearly headed to Atlanta (Rebecca Linn, “Turner Has That Soccer Look” 1-D). Even more of a surprise was that it was Ted Turner who nearly made it happen. It was Turner who turned down Mangurian and Marcum’s inquiries into having their NASL expansion franchise play at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1977.
“We were ready to buy the franchise last week, but the guys never called us back,” said Michael Gearon, the president and general manager of the Turner-owned Atlanta Hawks. Two of Turner’s financial advisers planned to join Gearon in a meeting with the Memphis ownership in early March. Turner himself tried to stay in the background, due to baseball rules on owning franchises in multiple sports (Turner did not participate in the management of the Hawks according to Gearon). “I’d like to see soccer here in the future, but I’m not pursuing it because I can’t do that without National League approval,” Turner said.
Mangurian told Linn that he was not interested in selling, “If I hear of a team that’s available, I’ll tell Ted, but I’m not interested in selling mine.” However, things in Memphis might not have been all that stable. Rudi Schiffler, the vice president of operations, talked in 2012 about his experience when he was hired (AC, “Memphis Rogues 1978-1980”). He said, “Marcum hired me on New Year’s Eve for the Rogues marketing and PR job, but he was drunk. When I called him a couple days later to get my airplane ticket, he’d forgotten who I was. Which gives you a hint of what was to come.”
Gearon said he was the first one to bring up soccer to Turner. “I told him he shouldn’t overlook the potential of soccer. Especially from the standpoint of the sports carried on his TV channel. Soccer has international implications.” He said that he checked on the possibility of the Toronto or Buffalo franchises being for sale, which would have been difficult because Buffalo did not have a franchise. Perhaps Gearon meant Rochester. “The way it stands now is we’ve checked, and nothing is for sale. I’ve told them all to call me in the future if they want to sell.” He went on to say, “Ted is interested in staying on top of anything going on in sports. Especially if soccer becomes an almost impossible sport to deal with. Then I’m sure Ted will want to buy a franchise.”
After all of the hype, none of the aforementioned scenarios resulted in an official announcement. On March 30, the Super Soccer League announced that a group of Atlanta businessmen had purchased a team that would start their season at the Omni on June 22 (Norman Arey, “Atlanta Acquires Indoor Soccer Team” 8-D). Larry Fricks, Glen Robinson, Jr., Glen Robinson III, and Bill Montgomery formed the group that would own Atlanta’s new professional soccer team. Fricks estimated that it would cost $500,000 to field the team. He said, “I see a need for professional soccer in Atlanta largely due to the interest in soccer at the grassroots level.” The SSL planned for a 32-game schedule between June and September. A press conference was scheduled for April 10 in New York by league president Jerry Saperstein to introduce the other teams and arenas.
Saperstein’s father Abe launched the famous Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. Jerry was 37 and had been involved in promoting the NBA, World Team Tennis, ice shows, and the Globetrotters (Red Smith, “Abe Saperstein’s Boy Jerry” 18). He had already identified the Nassau Coliseum as the home of the New York team in his league, and said that he would run that team if necessary. When asked about competing with the NASL, Saperstein said, “Well, summer is the offseason for the professionals in most other countries, so we can import a certain number of top pros but we want to specialize in kids out of the thousand American colleges that have soccer programs.”
After Bill Putnam’s announcement of the International Indoor Soccer League and his intention of putting a team in Atlanta, he got together with Saperstein and merged the two leagues. Putnam was named the vice president of operations for the SSL. Plans were for a league draft in mid-April for the teams to choose players from the pool identified by the league. “No players or coaches or general managers will be hired from the North American Soccer League,” said Saperstein.
However, it was less than two weeks later that Fricks said, “We aren’t happy with the way things are going and we feel pushed to have things ready to start playing by June” (Rebecca Linn, “Cold Feet… Group May Drop Soccer Backing” 5-D). The league was formally introduced on April 10 in New York with twelve teams introduced (Atlanta, Birmingham, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Louisiana, Miami, New England, New Jersey, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington). Fricks said that his group was the only one that wanted to delay the start of the league, with their idea to push the start back until June 1979. Saperstein gave the Atlanta group ten days to make up their minds.
One reason Fricks wanted to delay things was that he did not like the rental terms with The Omni. “We got the contract for renting The Omni and it’s just too damn expensive. We’ve got to see if we can work anything out with them.” Fricks said that his group had not paid the entire $50,000 and was weighing the options of selling their franchise rights for the amount they had paid, walking away and losing the money they had already paid, or trying to convince the league to allow them to sit out 1978 and join in 1979. “Atlanta has lost one soccer team already in the past. I’d rather pull out now and suffer the personal embarrassment than fail. We feel too pushed and The Omni’s price was surprisingly high.”
Ted Turner kept his toe in soccer’s waters by airing nine NASL matches on his WTCG-17 television channel, a schedule that kicked off on April 16 with a match between Ft. Lauderdale and Washington. Those same Strikers were booked for a trip to Atlanta to face Blackpool FC on May 15 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The match was introduced with an advertisement in The Atlanta Constitution that listed B.P.I. as the presenter and the Atlanta Coca-Cola Bottling Co., Delta Air Lines, and Avis as sponsors.
Former Atlanta Chiefs vice president Dick Cecil was also involved in promoting the event (Frank Hyland, “Atlanta, Pro Soccer Get Another Test” 9-D). “A test? Most definitely,” Cecil said. “There are some serious money people interested in the game here and this could definitely prove something to them.” The Atlanta Constitution’s Jesse Outlar speculated that a pro soccer team in Atlanta “would show a profit within three years” (Jesse Outlar, “How About ACC Champs vs. SEC Champs for State Title?” 2-D). Cecil did urge caution (Rebecca Linn, “It’s Soccer Show, Not A Test” 6-D). “But I don’t want people to think if they have a great turnout for this game it means Atlanta gets a soccer team. No, believe me, many, many more soccer exhibitions will come to Atlanta before someone buys us a franchise.”
Blackpool won the match 2-0 in front of a somewhat disappointing crowd of 9,600 (Rebecca Linn, “Soccer’s Turnstiles Tell A ‘Small” Tale” 1-D). NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam said, “At this time the league has decided not to expand. Possibly at the end of the season a team that isn’t doing well will want to relocate, but I know nothing of that now.” He said that he met with “two or three interested potential buyers” in Atlanta, but stressed that nothing was imminent. “No one has said they were ready to buy a franchise that could cost well into the $2-million range the first year.”
Woosnam also made it clear that the attendance for the Monday night exhibition at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium had not changed anything. “We don’t need to prove anything anymore. It’s clear by now the basics are here - the interest, the facilities, market, it’s all here. I’ve always believed Atlanta should get soccer back.” He went on to mention that the league was not encouraging teams to relocate after their first season, referring to the six expansion teams that joined the NASL for the 1978 season. “We want them to stick it out. They might lose money at first, but a NASL franchise worth $3 million today will be worth $15 million in a few years. We’re going great. We’re going indoors too, you know.” With all of the interest in launching indoor soccer leagues, the NASL agreed to launch a winter league among their teams between the 1978 and 1979 seasons.
The saga of the Super Soccer League continued on when it was revealed that Jerry Saperstein denied Larry Fricks’ request to launch Atlanta’s team in 1979 (Rebecca Linn, “Indoor Soccer Alive?” 4-D). “A lot of people are going to want in a year from now when this thing is going big,” Saperstein said. “One of the conditions to owning a franchise is that the buyer starts it up this spring.” However, Saperstein was working to have a team launch in Atlanta even after the dispute with Fricks’ group. “All I can say is that we’re talking to several business groups in Atlanta. This league is going to be great, and I hope Atlanta isn’t left out.”
Saperstein did not have to look too far away to find someone to take the Atlanta team forward. The vice president of the league, Bill Putnam, partnered with Mobile businessman Robert Williams to manage Atlanta’s entry in the SSL (Rebecca Linn, “Atlanta Gains Indoor Soccer Franchise” 1-D). The press conference to introduce Putnam, Williams, and the new franchise was set for May 24 with the team’s first match set for July 5 at The Omni. The league was said to have a network television deal negotiated by 20th Century Fox for a minimum of three games to be televised during the summer. The deal featured escalating revenue and telecasts in upcoming years and could be renegotiated three years into the five-year deal.
At the press conference, it was revealed that the SSL was set for a 36-game schedule and teams would stick to regional play to keep travel costs down (Alan Greenberg, “Shopping… Putnam Has Hope Now.” 2-D). “We all have to be economy-minded about the league or else we’ll never get off the ground,” Putnam said at the press conference. Shreveport, Miami, and Birmingham were set for the season with the possibility of others joining them.
Putnam and Williams hoped to have a coach in a few days, ahead of the SSL player draft set for May 31. The player pool for the SSL was made up of college seniors and a group of 45 British players who were eager to give the indoor game a try. Salaries were expected to be in the $10,000-18,000 range.
Putnam said that the Atlanta team could afford to lose a total of $300,000-400,000 during the first three years “before either breaking even or giving up.” Ticket prices were announced as $6 for the lower level of The Omni and $4 for the upper level, with students and kids under the age of 16 getting half priced tickets. He wanted to avoid empty seats, but he said, “I don’t believe in giving things away, because when you give people something for free, that’s what they think it’s worth.” Putnam said that the team could break even if they drew 4,000-5,000 people per game.
The team did not announce a name at the press conference, but they did say that their colors would be red and white with gold trim. This was in order to match The Omni’s color scheme and its tenants in the Hawks and Flames.
By the end of May, Atlanta had been linked to four different leagues and was a member of one. The twists and turns had only just begun though as 1978 continued to bring the drama. Spring turned to summer and the professional soccer front in Atlanta was about to heat up.
Gola, Hank. “Major indoor soccer league in the works.” The Herald-News, 11 November 1977, p. C-2, Newspapers.com.
Cunningham, Georgia. “Indoor Soccer Here? Maybe.” The Atlanta Constitution, 11 November 1977, p. 1-D, Newspapers.com.
“Sports This Morning.” The Atlanta Constitution, 16 November 1977, p. 2-C, Newspapers.com.
“Indoor Soccer League May Come to Atlanta.” The Atlanta Constitution, 24 February 1978, p. 2-D, Newspapers.com.
Linn, Rebecca. “Turner Has That Soccer Look.” The Atlanta Constitution, 10 March 1978, p. 1-D, Newspapers.com.
AC. “Memphis Rogues 1978-1980.” Fun While It Lasted. 28 June 2013. funwhileitlasted.net/2013/06/28/1978-1980-memphis-rogues/.
Arey, Norman. “Atlanta Acquires Indoor Soccer Team.” The Atlanta Constitution, 31 March 1978, p. 8-D, Newspapers.com.
Smith, Red. “Abe Saperstein’s Boy Jerry.” The New York Times, 3 February 1978, p. 18, Timesmachine.nytimes.com.
Linn, Rebecca. “Cold Feet… Group May Drop Soccer Backing.” The Atlanta Constitution, 12 April 1978, p. 5-D, Newspapers.com.
Hyland, Frank. “Atlanta, Pro Soccer Get Another Test.” The Atlanta Constitution, 14 May 1978, p. 9-D, Newspapers.com.
Outlar, Jesse. “How About ACC Champs vs. SEC Champs for State Title?” The Atlanta Constitution, 14 May 1978, p. 2-D, Newspapers.com.
Linn, Rebecca. “It’s Soccer Show, Not A Test.” The Atlanta Constitution, 15 May 1978, p. 6-D, Newspapers.com.
Linn, Rebecca. “Soccer’s Turnstiles Tell A ‘Small’ Tale.” The Atlanta Constitution, 16 May 1978, p. 1-D, Newspapers.com.
Linn, Rebecca. “Indoor Soccer Alive?” The Atlanta Constitution, 2 May 1978, p. 4-D, Newspapers.com.
Linn, Rebecca. “Atlanta Gains Indoor Soccer Franchise.” The Atlanta Constitution, 24 May 1978, p. 1-D, Newspapers.com.
Greenberg, Alan. “Shopping… Putnam Has Hope Now.” The Atlanta Constitution, 25 May 1978, p. 2-D, Newspapers.com.