6:56 am July 13, 2010, by Henry Unger

Call it the St. Louis Scramble.

The last thing that the rookie owner of the women’s pro soccer team in Atlanta needed was for the St. Louis team to fold right before coming here in May for the third home game of the season.
Fitz Johnson

Fitz Johnson

But that’s exactly what Atlanta Beat owner Fitz Johnson faced — a shot to the gut while trying to woo new fans in his team’s inaugural season.

Welcome to the rocky world of women’s pro soccer, a perennial tough sell in America. Marketing women’s basketball is no picnic, but hoops is a considerably bigger draw than soccer.

“You’ve got to become relevant in the sports landscape of Atlanta,” said Johnson, who has invested $2.5 million to try to do that. “It’s extremely hard.”

Even harder, when the league, Women’s Professional Soccer, is shaky. It has gone from nine teams to seven, losing the Los Angeles franchise before the season started.

When St. Louis bailed out right before the Atlanta game, Johnson needed to do some fancy footwork to minimize the damage. He quickly got a minor league team in from Tampa as a substitute, slashed individual ticket prices for the game and told season ticketholders it would be a “bonus game.”

“You get a little dose of reality you didn’t plan for,” Johnson, 46, said. “It’s similar to any start-up. … You can’t know everything going in.”

To his credit, Johnson seems to be a fast learner. He has lined up 33 corporate partners, including WellStar, which gets front billing on the team’s uniform. He speaks to any business, civic, church, sports or youth group that will invite him. And he’s trying to create a family-friendly atmosphere in the new Kennesaw State University soccer stadium — all in the name of providing young girls with more role models and opportunities in the future.

But the former defense contractor, retired army officer and Citadel grad is in for a steep, uphill fight.

He needs to average 5,000 to 6,000 paying fans a game to break even. So far, he said, the average has been in the 3,500 neighborhood. Even when hosting the league’s All-Star game to showcase the best of the best, only 4,610 showed up.

“You’ve got to build it and build it. It takes time,” he said.

The competition for the sports dollar is daunting — Braves, Falcons, Hawks, Thrashers, Bulldogs, Yellow Jackets, Gwinnett Braves and Atlanta Dream. Plus, Georgia State’s new football team will soon start playing in the Dome.

“We have to do more marketing, but it’s expensive,” he said, noting that he is losing more money than he anticipated. “You want to be around for the long haul, so you don’t want to spend it all up front. … I’m still committed to three years and hopefully a lot longer.”

Will the league survive? (The previous one did not.)

Johnson thinks it will, as long as it can maintain at least six teams, which he thinks it can.

For his part, Johnson will be looking for investors in the off-season and trying to boost revenue by organizing other events at the stadium. He also needs to convince youth soccer players in hotbeds like Gwinnett and Fayette that Kennesaw is not located in a foreign land.

“There’s no question it’s extremely difficult and challenging,” Johnson said. “I don’t think anything worth it is ever going to be easy.”

This certainly isn’t.

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