By Charles Cuttone
The history and business operations of the Atlanta franchise in the original North American Soccer League were interestingly intertwined with the fortunes of Atlanta’s other professional sports teams, the Braves, the Hawks and, in a surprising way, the Atlanta Flames.
Like many of the franchises entered in both the National Professional Soccer League and the United Soccer Association, the Atlanta Chiefs were under the control of the ownership of the Atlanta Braves, which at the time were headed by a group headed by Bill Bartholomay.
Braves Vice President Dick Cecil became intrigued by US interest in the 1966 World Cup in England, and, looking to add events to the recently-opened Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, the organization invested in a soccer franchise.
From 1967-72, the Chiefs were Atlanta’s most successful sports franchise on the field. The club did not have a losing season in that period, and in 1968, under the guidance of coach and future NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam, the team won the NASL Championship, the only title won by an Atlanta team until the Braves won the World Series in 1995.
The Chiefs success also included defeating Manchester City, twice. But the team wasn’t nearly as successful off the field, and the Braves ownership decided at the end of the 1972 season to return the franchise to the league.
“Since our entry into soccer in 1967, we have lost over $1.5 million, and we can no longer justify any more expense to continue,” said Cecil in announcing the decision to fold the team. “We still feel that one day soccer will take its place among the major professional sports in the United States, and if it does show significant progress within the next few years, it is possible we will be interested in taking another look at it. In the meantime, if a local group in Atlanta wishes to continue in soccer, we will do everything we can to aid in its success.”
But the baseball team pulling out of backing the soccer franchise did not mark its death knell. The owners of the Atlanta Hawks, real estate developer Tom Cousins and former Georgia Governor Carl Sanders, bought the franchise and renamed it the Apollo. Instead of playing at 50,000-seat Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, which had a baseball diamond in it, the team played its home games at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium, home of the Yellowjackets football team. That ownership group kept the team for only one season.
After a five year absence, professional soccer returned to Atlanta in 1980, again under the ownership of the Braves. Cecil’s words of a few years before came full circle. The NASL was experiencing a boom and new Braves owner Ted Turner, a brash broadcaster and yachtsman sometimes known as the mouth of the South, wanted in.
Turner also bought the Atlanta Hawks, and controlled the operating rights to the Omni arena in downtown Atlanta. That association led to perhaps the most unusual crossover into another sport for the Chiefs --the hiring of Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, Hockey Hall of Famer and former head coach of the Atlanta Flames of the National Hockey League.
After the Flames moved to Calgary, Geoffrion was hired by the Chiefs. The team was making the move to indoor soccer, and the former hockey great helped the club with tactics, and ostensibly taught the outdoor players who had never played indoors before how to use dasherboards to their advantage.
“When you learn to use the boards in indoor soccer, you can win,” Geoffrion said to the New York Times in a 1981 interview. “The resemblance of indoor soccer to hockey is extraordinary.”
Geoffrion, who passed away in 2006, played for the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers, and later coached both those teams, as well as the Flames.
The one-time hockey star worked with Chiefs coach David Chadwick to devise hockey-like strategy for the indoor soccer team who played at the Omni, the same arena that the Flames had called home.
How much Geoffrion’s advice helped the team is really hard to determine, but the Chiefs, who finished the 1980 outdoor season with a 7–25 record, went on to win back-to-back division titles in the NASL’s indoor league, advancing to the semifinals in 1980-81 with a 13–5 record. The team also had the best record of its second outdoor incarnation in 1981, going 17–15 and finishing first in the Southern Division.
Unfortunately, however, the team’s financial performance continued to lag. This time, the death knell was sounded by Robert Wussler, who was by then Chairman of the Chiefs and Turner Broadcasting Company.
“We were all pleased with the club’s ability to turn around its on-field fortunes during the 1981 indoor and outdoor seasons,” Wussler said. “However, close scrutiny of the entire financial picture for both the past and any future operations of the club deemed it necessary to discontinue our involvement with the game of soccer at this time.”
The Chiefs’ losses over the three-year period were pegged at $7 million.
Charles Cuttone is Executive Editor of Soccer News Net, whose web sites include www.bigapplesoccer.com, www.dcsoccernews.com, www.DCSoccerNews.com and www.SunshineSoccerNews.com. Follow him on twitter @ccsports
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