The Barren Pitch: Atlanta Pro Soccer in the mid-1970's
Updated: Apr 24, 2020
“I simply don’t have enough time or enough smarts to operate a soccer team at this time.” John Wilcox, then president of the Omni Group, made the final statement on the first era of professional soccer in Atlanta on October 5, 1973 (“Apollos Dropped” p4). The Atlanta Apollos had completed their first season in existence nearly two months earlier, drawing 2-2 with the Toronto Metros in front of just over two thousand fans at Georgia Tech’s Grant Field. The Apollos picked up where the first professional soccer team left off at the end of October in 1972. The Atlanta Chiefs, owned by the Atlanta Braves, lost over $1.5 million in the six seasons that they operated (“Chiefs Reach End of Road In Atlanta” 2-D). The Chiefs always believed in building for the long haul and growing the game from scratch in Atlanta and in the South. However, financial losses like that coupled with the growing pains that the Braves were going through as well meant that they couldn’t wait any longer for all of the seeds to flower. There was a soccer scene left in the dust when the Apollos and Chiefs went away, but it kept on growing in the professionals’ absence. Adults played in the Atlanta District Amateur Soccer League, which continues on today over fifty years after it launched. The initial youth leagues at the Decatur YMCA and in DeKalb County continued to grow and inspire others. All of the kids who went to camps organized by the Chiefs or played in these leagues became teenagers and played on the many high school teams that sprung up around the metro Atlanta area. College programs like Emory, Oglethorpe, and Georgia State continued to provide an opportunity for local players. The rumble of pro soccer returning to Atlanta kicked up when the New York Cosmos shocked the United States and the world by signing Pele in 1975 (Vic Dorr, “NASL Sees Soccer in Atlanta --- Again” 1-D). Less than a month after his debut in the Big Apple, NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam said about his original American soccer home Atlanta, “There are people here who have indicated to us their interest in a franchise. At this time I cannot reveal any names, because our talks haven’t progressed that far, buy by the end of the month we hope to have something more definite.” Woosnam was a key in the Chiefs’ extensive outreach programs and knew what kind of effect they had in creating a soccer scene where it had not existed previously. Other cities in the NASL took elements of these programs as they tried to grow their own soccer communities. Woosnam said about NASL expansion, “Pele’s signing was the catalyst we needed, but we had been working for a long while prior to that to establish our credibility. We wanted to be able to exert a favorable influence on Madison Avenue, and on television.” Atlanta was not quite ready to react to this impulse, but that effect was gradually felt. In late 1975, the Atlanta Constitution reported that 90 high schools were fielding boys teams in the state of Georgia (Wayne Minshew, “Soccer Gets Atlanta Foothold” 3-C). Parents in DeKalb County pushed for more games in their high school seasons with speakers saying that more boys were trying out for soccer than for baseball or basketball at Southwest DeKalb High School (Jay Lawrence, “Soccer in DeKalb May be Expanded” 6-D). Westminster went on to defeat South Cobb for the state championship in March 1976, the tenth anniversary of the first state high school championship. By 1977, more parents in DeKalb County began the push for organized girls high school soccer (it started in 1981) and 4,000 spectators came out for the state high school championship match at Sandy Springs Stadium won by Decatur over Lakeside (“Prep Soccer Draws 4,000” 4-C). Nearly 11,000 youth were playing in the state by 1976 with new leagues popping up on a regular basis (“Soccer Catching On In ‘Football Stronghold’” p. 19). Over 500 adults were playing in a few different leagues that ranged from recreational to competitive. Soccer was even drawing the attention of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola. They signed their first agreement with FIFA that saw an agreement to hold clinics and establish soccer programs as well as sponsorship of the inaugural FIFA World Youth Championship in 1977 in Tunisia. The NASL was in a completely different place in the summer of 1977 than when Atlanta left it in late 1973. The Apollos were one of nine teams who competed for the title in 1973. Twice as many teams were active during the 1977 season, with more to come the following season. Phil Woosnam was bullish on the possibility of a team opening for business in his first American home of Atlanta soon. He told Wayne Minshew of the Atlanta Constitution on June 23 that he was optimistic about Atlanta’s professional soccer options (Wayne Minshew, “Soccer Return Possible” 1-D). “There is some interest and I believe a franchise would be successful there… It would go. And, personally, I feel it is time to go back,” Woosnam said. He said he had talked to two different individuals and they were working on putting an ownership group together. Woosnam suggested that the team could play at DeKalb Memorial Stadium to start, but eventually that would change. “But one day, they would move downtown, to the big one. At the rate we are going, all clubs should want stadiums of 40,000,” Woosnam said. The NASL commissioner expected, correctly, that the league would have 24 teams in 1978. He also hoped that in five years, the league would have 32 teams. Woosnam told Minshew that if Atlanta was not part of the 24, they certainly they would be part of the 32. He looked to a success story in Minneapolis as a possible way forward for Atlanta’s crowded sports market. Woosnam said, “We’re just trying to get in alongside the others. Minnesota is a lot like Atlanta… the same problems and, really, when we are playing, we are competing against only one other sport (baseball).” Woosnam was full of optimism after his league set a record on June 19. At Giants Stadium, the New York Cosmos win over the Tampa Bay Rowdies was watched by 62,394 fans. That was the new record for the largest soccer crowd in the United States. It would eventually be topped later in the year as the NASL was at its strongest point. He hoped Atlanta could be one of those new teams for the 1978 season, telling Minshew, “There is enough money in Atlanta. I ready the story in Sports Illustrated about it being ‘Losersville,’ but I don’t for one minute believe that. They backed us in 1968 bette than anyone else was supported, and I hope we can get back there… next year.” Those hopes were dashed as Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was not made available to a new team (Wayne Minshew, “NASL Stumbles In Move Here” 1-D). Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner told the Atlanta Constitution’s Wayne Minshew and Norman Arey, “I think playing soccer in there would tear up the grass. If they want soccer, then build me another stadium for baseball. Just one game in the mud would tear it up, and that wouldn’t be fair to my players.” Woosnam acknowledged the issues, he said, “We’ve got problems in Atlanta. It’s a bad problem as far as bringing in a soccer franchise. The authorities seem to think that soccer will tear up the field at Atlanta Stadium, and that’s just not true. It won’t do anything to harm it.” In the resulting article printed in the September 23 edition of the Atlanta Constitution, it was divulged that a Tampa, FL man had contacted Turner about a soccer team using the stadium. Turner said the man had tried to purchase the two-year old Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL franchise, failed, and “just wants to own a sports team.” Sources told Minshew and Arey that the money was “coming out of Fort Lauderdale, FL, and represented by a front man in Tampa.” They were ready to bring in a team immediately. Turner suggested trying to use Grant Field and working out a deal with Georgia Tech. The prospective owners worried about the parking options at Georgia Tech. The situation dampened Phil Woosnam’s enthusiasm about the league returning to Atlanta. “What worries me is that if we didn’t make it this year, there was always next year. But if we get shut out of Atlanta Stadium, that’ll be for next year and the year after and the year after that,” Woosnam said. “I honestly think Atlanta has a great future in pro soccer. But we have to have a major league place to play and we are having trouble getting into Atlanta Stadium.” Minshew and Arey suggested in the article that the answer was for one of the suburban counties (DeKalb, Gwinnett, or Cobb) to build a 25,000 to 30,000 stadium, or to add to the seating capacity of an existing stadium. 15,000 fans per match was generally seen at the break even mark for professional soccer teams at this time in the NASL. Georgia Tech Athletic Director Doug Weaver expressed an interest in receiving a proposal from the prospective ownership group (Wayne Minshew, “Tech Is Possible For Soccer Site” 6-C). He said that a possible investor from Tampa visited the facility on September 7 but “never got back to me.” Weaver said that, assuming the Tampa investor mentioned by Turner is the same that visited Grant Field, the person was legitimate because he knew the man’s background. Woosnam still hoped for Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. “We had no problems with the Yankees last year or with the Twins at Minnesota this year. I hope Ted will change his mind, but I don’t think he will,” he told Minshew. The mystery investor introduced himself later in the week. Harry Mangurian of Fort Lauderdale was represented by Bill Marcum of Tampa in the negotiations to bring a NASL expansion team to Atlanta for the 1978 season (Norman Arey, “Chances of Soccer in Atlanta Get Dimmer and Dimmer” 6-D). “The whole idea was to use Atlanta Stadium. For what they want for a soccer franchise today, we felt we had to have the stadium,” Mangurian told Arey. He said they were not interested in Grant Field due to the parking problems. Woosnam still believed in the prospects of Atlanta as a NASL city. “I honestly believe that Atlanta could come close to breaking even the first year. If a city like Tampa can do it, then I feel certain that Atlanta can,” he told Arey. However, Mangurian made it clear that without Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, he would not attempt it. When asked by Arey where the proposal stood, Mangurian said, “I think it’s dead.” Around this same time, publicity began for a U.S. national team match at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on October 10. Advertisements stated the game was presented by the U.S. Soccer Federation and The National Committee on United States-China Relations. Sponsors for the match included Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, and Bell & Howell. The match was promoted by Atlanta Braves Productions and Dick Cecil and was one of five for the Chinese national team on its tour of the United States.
Prior to the match, Cecil told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Gary Caruso, “There has been considerable speculation that Atlanta may be ripe again for professional soccer. This game, although i doesn’t feature a local team, should be an excellent indicator of that interest.” Since the end of the 1977 NASL season, cities lined up for potential expansion franchises as well as for existing teams that could be moving. The St. Louis Stars were drawing interest from Columbus, Ohio and Anaheim, California (where they would eventually become the California Surf) (“Newsmakers” 2-D). The U.S. drew 1-1 with China in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, October 6 in front of 8,366 spectators. The match in Atlanta four days later nearly doubled that attendance, with a reported 15,003 turning out to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on a Monday night to see the U.S. win 1-0 on a goal from Fred Pereira (Norman Arey, “15,0003 See U.S. Win 1-0” 4-D). One NASL official told Norman Arey that, “I saw crowds in New York and in Washington, D.C. and the Atlanta crowds seem much more knowledgeable than either of the others.” Arey also noted the development of the sport in the U.S. from the days of the Chiefs, saying that the U.S. team (composed of all NASL players) “depended on finesse and strategy combined with patience while the American players who played either for or against the Atlanta Chiefs depended more on brute strength and power.” The good news from the match was not enough to revive hopes of Atlanta playing in the NASL in 1978 (Norman Arey, “NASL Out For Atlanta Next Season” 5-D). During the weekend after the China match, the NASL selected applications from seven cities for further study for expansion franchises and Atlanta was not on the list. Memphis, Philadelphia, Montreal, Houston, Boston, Cleveland, and Detroit were the ones to be considered (with Montreal and Cleveland missing out on new teams for 1978, and the Caribous of Colorado coming out of nowhere to launch in Denver). Three teams (Connecticut, Las Vegas, and St. Louis) moved to California (Oakland, San Diego, and Anaheim respectively) and Team Hawaii came to the mainland to become the Tulsa Roughnecks. With Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium unavailable due to Ted Turner’s concerns about damage to the field, and the lack of interest from Harry Mangurian in playing at Grant Field, Atlanta would have to wait. Norman Arey closed his October 18 article ominously with “Many people feel that Atlanta will never land a franchise since it missed this year because of the demand from other cities for franchises and the rising costs of fielding a team.” However, situations frequently changed quickly in American soccer in the 1970’s. Atlanta took advantage of that in 1978. --- “Apollos Dropped.” The Californian, 6 October 1973, p. 16, Newspapers.com. “Chiefs Reach End of Road In Atlanta.” The Atlanta Constitution, 25 October 1972, p. 2-D, Newspapers.com. Dorr, Vic. “NASL Sees Soccer in Atlanta --- Again.” The Atlanta Constitution, 7 July 1975, p. 1-D, Newspapers.com. Minshew, Wayne. “Soccer Gets Atlanta Foothold.” The Atlanta Constitution, 18 November 1975, p. 3-C, Newspapers.com. Lawrence, Jay. “Soccer in DeKalb May be Expanded.” The Atlanta Constitution, 25 October 1975, p. 6-D, Newspapers.com. “Prep Soccer Draws 4,000.” The Atlanta Constitution, 16 March 1977, p. 4-C, Newspapers.com. “Soccer Catching On In ‘Football Stronghold’.” Florence Times - Tri-Cities Daily, 30 September 1976, p. 19, Newspapers.com. Minshew, Wayne. “Soccer Return Possible.” The Atlanta Constitution, 24 June 1977, p. 1-D, Newspapers.com. Minshew, Wayne. “NASL Stumbles In Move Here.” The Atlanta Constitution, 23 September 1977, p. 1-D, Newspapers.com. Minshew, Wayne. “Tech Is Possible For Soccer Site.” The Atlanta Constitution, 24 September 1977, p. 6-C, Newspapers.com. Arey, Norman. “Chances of Soccer in Atlanta Get Dimmer and Dimmer.” The Atlanta Constitution, 29 September 1977, p. 6-D, Newspapers.com. “Newsmakers.” The Atlanta Constitution, 30 September 1977, p. 2-D, Newspapers.com. Arey, Norman. “15,003 See U.S. Win 1-0.” The Atlanta Constitution, 11 October 1977, p. 4-D, Newspapers.com. Arey, Norman. “NASL Out For Atlanta Next Season.” The Atlanta Constitution, 18 October 1977, p. 5-C, Newspapers.com.