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Build the Beat back up

If an NWSL franchise comes to Atlanta, where would the team play? Here’s an idea: Historic Herndon Stadium. Here’s why it could work.

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NWSL: NJ/NY Gotham FC at North Carolina Courage Andy Mead-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: This article was written by Dirty South Soccer reader Akshay Easwaran. Akshay, a proud Georgia Tech graduate, also contributes to our SBN sister site From The Rumble Seat, and you can find his work here.

Professional women’s soccer in the United States has had three top-flight iterations:

  1. The Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA): Founded in 2001, folded in 2003
  2. Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS): Founded in 2009, folded in 2012
  3. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL): Founded in 2013, expanding to 12 teams in 2022

Both of these previous iterations have shared something that the NWSL lacks: a franchise in Atlanta. Both defunct leagues were quick to add Atlanta to their ranks (WUSA in its inaugural season, WPS in its second year), but the NWSL has strayed from the path laid out by its forebears and given little mind to expanding to what’s been a thriving soccer market ever since the creation of the Atlanta Chiefs of the original NASL in the 1960s and a region that’s developed two current United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) and NWSL stars in Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett.

Sure, there have been overtures from local land developers in recent years, but both efforts have ended in sullen silence:

  • In 2015, an investment group led by Trey Brantley and Southfund Partners were interested in hosting an NWSL team at Henderson Stadium at Midtown High School, later reaching a tentative agreement with Atlanta Silverbacks Park in Doraville. They had hoped to enter the league by 2016, but considering that it’s now 2022 and we’ve heard nary a peep from Southfund Partners in the interim, it’s safe to say that plan has been scuttled.
  • In 2016, a group in Dekalb County aimed to bring both a second NASL team (along with the Silverbacks) and a NWSL franchise to Atlanta with plans to build “dozens of athletic fields, a stadium and a sports medicine center at the Mall at Stonecrest”. But considering that 1) the developers involved had not actually “purchased the land (or) secure(d) financing for the project” when they pitched the project to vendors and 2) there’s, you know, still no NWSL team here, I think we can safely assume those efforts went nowhere as well.

The most recent scrap of news about any NWSL expansion to Atlanta that we have is from our friends at Major League Soccer soccer dot com itself (sourced from our friends at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Coming off the USWNT’s dominant World Cup victory in France in summer 2019 and Atlanta United’s MLS Cup victory in 2018, Arthur M. Blank Sports & Entertainment (AMBSE) spokesman Brett Jewkes confirmed that the club had been in touch with NWSL about expansion opportunities:

“We’ve had very preliminary discussions with the National Women’s Soccer League about a possible franchise in Atlanta…We are evaluating a wide-range of factors to review and consider with no definitive timetable to complete that process. The growing success and appeal of women’s soccer in America, both at the professional and amateur levels, is exciting and certainly worthy of our careful exploration.”

Jewkes was right on everything he mentioned in the club’s statement, especially the timetable (or lack thereof) — since 2019, there’s been nary a peep from the club about a potential women’s side, even as the USWNT (with its two Georgia-born players in tow) has gone on to bag more silverware, including medals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and as the NWSL has continued to approve expansion partners in Los Angeles (Angel City), San Diego (SD Wave FC), and Kansas City (KC Current — just ignore the part where they’re technically a relocated franchise).

So if the club isn’t going to be forthright about its plans for a women’s side, it’s time for rampant speculation and prognostication — and friends, I bring you that in droves.

Mr. Blank — Uncle Arthur — can I call you Arthur? Let’s talk about NWSL in Atlanta. It all starts where women’s soccer in Atlanta (mostly) once began: at historic Herndon Stadium.

On the right side of this image is America’s best sporting venue (in my totally-unbiased view, of course). On the left is what could be its second — with some TLC. Let me explain.

Herndon Stadium isn’t something that’s marked on a map anymore (see above), but it used to be a community centerpiece for a historic university. Its previous owner — Morris Brown College — was the first institution of higher learning “founded by black people…for black people” in Georgia. As Atlanta Magazine’s Thomas Wheatley wrote in 2017:

Morris Brown was born from audacity. On a winter’s day in 1881, local African Methodist Episcopal [AME] clergy, many of whom had been born into slavery, gathered in Big Bethel AME Church in the Old Fourth Ward. Clark College, a school for black students founded by white Methodist missionaries, needed their help to “furnish a room” on the Clark campus. But the clergy had other ideas; they decided to open their very own college instead.

A three-year fundraising campaign, fueled mostly by contributions from Georgia AME churches, helped raise the $13,000 needed to buy property and build a school named for Morris Brown, an AME bishop who fled to Philadelphia from Charleston in the 1820s after being accused of plotting a slave revolt. Morris Brown opened its doors in the Old Fourth Ward on October 15, 1885, to 107 middle, high school, and college students.

Morris Brown was fully funded by its AME church founders, unlike any of its HBCU brethren in Atlanta. But despite these financial foibles, enrollment and its stature grew, crowned by a massive expansion of its campus via a gift of land and buildings from the former Atlanta University in 1940. Later in the same decade, Alonzo Herndon — Atlanta’s first black millionaire — donated more land to the school, which it used to build a stadium for its two-time Black national champion college football program. The Morris Brown Wolverines added a third star to their badge (so to speak) in 1951 in dominant fashion while playing the bulk of their games at the newly-constructed Herndon Stadium.

Alonzo F. Herndon Stadium, circa 1970. (Courtesy: Robert W. Woodruff Library)

Alonzo F. Herndon Stadium, 1985. (Courtesy: Robert W. Woodruff Library)

In the lead up to the 1996 Olympics, the original Herndon Stadium was almost completely rebuilt to host field hockey (here’s a contemporary aerial view, via Jon Bazemore at the Associated Press). Parts of the original structure were kept intact for their historical significance, but around them, a “precast concrete” structure that itself was encased in a “triple-brick pattern” emerged with 15000 units of curved stadium seating (with some actual seats, but mostly metal bleachers — like those at Bobby Dodd Stadium) added to both sides of the field. An entirely new entry plaza was constructed, and sidewalks and other infrastructure around the stadium plot were improved, making the arena perfect for its post-Olympic life as a college football venue.

But college football and field hockey (along with marching band and drumline, which aren’t mentioned here but were integral parts of Morris Brown’s culture) aren’t the only sports that are part of Herndon’s story: soccer came to town soon after the USWNT’s dramatic victory in the 1999 World Cup. The 20 members of the World Cup-winning squad, along with investors from Time Warner Cable, Cox Enterprises, Cox Communications, and a number of other companies and independent businesspeople, formed the Women’s United Soccer Association, sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) as a Division 1 professional soccer league in 2000.

Atlanta was among WUSA’s inaugural cities, backed by founding USWNT players Briana Scurry, Cindy Parlow (now Cindy Parlow Cone, the current USSF president), and Nikki Serlenga. Named the Beat and much like the music they were named for, the franchise was immediately successful, making the WUSA playoffs in each of their three seasons of play (and even reaching the WUSA Founders’ Cup final in two of them). After spending their inaugural season at Bobby Dodd Stadium (fun coincidence there, eh?), the Beat made Herndon Stadium their new home for 2002. Herndon would also later host that year’s WUSA Founders Cup final between the Carolina Courage and the Washington Freedom.

But financial turmoil struck both of Herndon’s anchor tenants. In 2002, due to financial mismanagement by its president and financial aid director, Morris Brown College had its accreditation revoked by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Without SACS accreditation, Morris Brown students could not receive financial aid, and “(a)t a school where more than 90 percent of students depended on some sort of financial assistance, the effect was devastating.” Without tuition revenues from aid, Morris Brown’s budget was whittled down to $3 million, forcing a variety of cost-cutting measures in order to remain open. One of those measures was the shuttering of its football program after the end of the 2002 season.

WUSA had its own set of problems barely a year later: projected to have a five-year runway of funds, the league floundered after three years when it failed to land a television contract for 2004. With over $90 million in losses and even with founding players agreeing to 20% pay-cuts, the league — and the Atlanta Beat — folded in September of 2003, leaving Herndon Stadium without a tenant. As the college that owned it sank further into financial ruin, a once-proud college football and Olympic venue owned by a once-proud HBCU fell into disrepair and vandalism. As of 2014, Invest Atlanta, the city of Atlanta’s investment arm, co-owns Herndon Stadium, along with Friendship Baptist Church, but no effort has been made since to refurbish the stadium by the city or its partners.

I’ve laid out the state of affairs at play at a historic stadium at a historic college because I see an opportunity for a benevolent investor to bring life back to this once-great arena. I see an opportunity for you, Mr. Arthur Blank, to kill two birds with one stone. Investment in Herndon Stadium and Morris Brown College can serve a variety of purposes, and here’s how you can do it.

Enter into a public/private partnership with the City of Atlanta (technically Invest Atlanta) and Morris Brown College to renovate Herndon Stadium.

This isn’t something foreign to you or to soccer in the Atlanta area by any means, Mr. Blank. You’ve been involved in another public/private partnership with the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, which technically owned the Georgia Dome and now owns Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which your AMB Group runs operations for. And speaking of these partnerships, the second iteration of the Atlanta Beat worked with Kennesaw State University to construct a 8,300-seat soccer-specific stadium on campus, along with a bevy of other athletics facilities and park space. Why does this all sound so familiar? Because your soccer franchise’s second team plays in that very facility — now known as Fifth-Third Bank Stadium — today!

This is a model of investment that you’re both heavily involved in already and you know that works. What was done for Kennesaw State can be done for Morris Brown (albeit at a smaller scale).

Bring NWSL to renovated Herndon Stadium.

But Mr. Blank, being the savvy investor you are, you might ask me “how will I fund this public/private partnership?” Well, here’s how: the real revenue generator for this plan will be a world-class women’s soccer club, hosted right on Herndon Stadium’s soon-to-be (with your help) luscious natural grass surface. Morris Brown is back on its feet after nearly 20 years, having recently received its accreditation candidacy with TRACS, the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. By sharing ticket and event revenues with Morris Brown, you’ll do three things:

  1. Create a system of sustainable revenue generation for Morris Brown College as it continues to grow, given consistent investment in NWSL and the rabid soccer market that is Atlanta.
  2. Invest heavily in the growth of an underserved community whose economic development has been pushed to the wayside, despite the construction of your $1.5B sporting palace a few blocks away and the planned re-development of the Gulch nearby.
  3. Provide another world-class sporting experience as part of your existing portfolio of them, this time in the quickly-growing and intensely-competitive women’s soccer market.

And you can do all of this for a fraction of what it took to bring Atlanta United into existence: NWSL franchises only cost $5 million. That’s even less of a drop in the money bucket considering the revenues that the other football franchise you own takes part in.

It’s time to bring NWSL to Atlanta, Arthur. It’s also time to restore Herndon Stadium and its community to their Olympic glory. Let’s build the Beat back up — together.