There are three key moments in the history of the Columbus Eagles. One is a chant. Another is a meeting. The third is traffic.
Mark Wise, the founder, CEO and former head coach of the Eagles has a history with women’s soccer that dates back to coaching his daughter at the youth level. Then in the late 1990s, he received an advertisement in the mail for the 1999 Women’s World Cup. He didn’t hesitate in buying tickets and taking his family to Chicago. On their approach to Soldier Field, the Wises found a traffic jam of 70,000 people who all showed up to watch Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and the rest of the eventual 1999 World Cup champions. He was amazed.
That’s when he became hopeful that Columbus was going to see professional women’s soccer of their own. After all, the NHL brought in the Blue Jackets and Major League Soccer chose Columbus as its first team before the new millennium. Columbus was on the rise.
What followed over the next 14 years was the starting and folding of multiple professional women’s leagues like the WUSA and WPS and never coming closer to Central Ohio than Chicago or Washington D.C. When the current women’s league, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) started in 2012, and Columbus still wasn’t included, Wise became frustrated.
“I was complaining to a colleague at a coach’s meeting on why do they always skip over Columbus,” said Wise.
Wise ended up complaining to the president of the Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL), the largest amateur women’s soccer league in the United States. His response? “Well, why don’t you do something about it?”
At this point, coaching came to mind for Wise. He always tells his players to “dream big dreams and sometimes that dream is about you.” The Columbus Eagles started in 2014 after an investment of $6,000.
“I was surprised that there weren’t crazy people like me,” said Wise about low supporter turnout in the first few years. When talking about if a team came to the city, Wise said that he’d “be the first season ticket holder and the number one fan.” Unfortunately, breaking through in a market isn’t that easy.
Towards the end of the 2017 season, it was to the point where he didn’t know if the dream was worth it anymore. The team averaged around only 50 people per game in the early years. When Wise looked up into the stands on matchdays, he told himself countless times that this team should have these bleachers full. What Wise didn’t notice by focusing on attendance figures was the impact that was being made in the locker room and on the field.
That same year, the Eagles secured the team’s best season of its short history. In the team history-making post-victory huddle, defender Summer Bourcier yelled, “Family on three.” This move helped the Eagles remain in existence as Wise contemplated folding the team.
Together, the Eagles became much more than a team.
Since 2017, the team has grown on and off the field. The Eagles have added more talent and more fans began to attend matches. During the Save the Crew movement, the team hosted a Save the Crew Night and formed a partnership with the Columbus Crew supporters’ section, the Nordecke, in purchasing season tickets for both teams.
In 2020, Wise invested more money into marketing than he had done in the past five seasons, and the Eagles looked forward to the team’s second season with Capital University Women’s Soccer coach Matt Ogden at the helm for the spring and summer campaigns. As is the ending of a lot of great 2020 plans though, it didn’t come to fruition.
The Eagles were not fortunate enough to have a 2020 season like the Crew’s MLS Cup-winning campaign. With the WPSL canceling all activities for the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been since July of 2019 since the Eagles played a league match.
A normal season of Eagles soccer starts with a couple of indoor matches to warm up, a spring season against local college teams and then the WPSL season in the late spring and summer. The 2021 season is going to look different.
Local colleges lost their fall seasons, so this spring will now feature league matches instead of the normal conditioning season of exhibitions. To make up for the lack of playing time, Columbus entered the Premier Arena Soccer League (PASL) for the first time. The Eagles saw it as a way to get the team out to play, finally. On Saturday in-state rival, the Cincinnati Sirens, come to town.
When asked about outdoor play, Wise is hopeful that there is a full WPSL season that starts in late May and hopes fans can be in attendance. The Eagles plan on playing their matches at Capital University this summer, and with COVID-19 cases declining in the state, and with social distance measurements in place, the Eagles can still welcome up to 500 supporters into the 1,700-person Bernlohr Stadium.
Wise is emphatic about his support of his team. “They deserve to play. They deserve to be seen. They deserve to play in front of a full stadium. They deserve to be here,” he told Massive Report. His hope is that supporters will feel the same.
While they can’t be in attendance for now, fans can watch Eagles PASL matches for free on EagleTV, a non-pay wall team streaming link on their website, this Saturday at 3 p.m. ET. On the broadcast will be members of the Crew’s supporters’ group, the Greater Columbus Golden Boys and Girls, also known as GCGBAG. The Eagles are also selling virtual tickets for $10 to support the team’s 2021 season. People that buy a ticket are entered into a raffle for sponsor and team prizes throughout matchday.
Massive Report will also be back covering the Eagles on a regular basis, so stay tuned for updates throughout the year on the team, its performances and much more.