Photo by David Heasley

Where Eagles Dare to Soar

About two years ago, Columbus’ Mark Wise, 59, wrote a check for $6,000, then promptly told his investors, “Guys, if we don’t get a single girl to come to tryouts, we’re in trouble.”

The Women’s Premier Soccer League had been filling the country with semi-pro and amateur teams since 1998, but no one had successfully established a team in Columbus. Following two failed attempts in the capital city, Wise was sweating under the weight of his decision to attempt what no one else had been able to do.

“It was really a risk,” he said of the venture that had no guarantees, no team, no outside money and no venue. “But I just thought, ‘If somebody else doesn’t do it, maybe I should just step up. Maybe I should just give it a go.’”

So he wrote the check. And then he waited to see if any players would show up…

Back in the day, when women athletes were chastised

We have to have more female viewers. More women need to step up and buy the tickets and support their peers.”

“I remember growing up when the ladies that played sports were not treated very nicely,” Wise said of the late-1960s and early-1970s. “The ladies that played basketball were not allowed to run the full court because they could sweat too much. Only three could go into the attack zone—all that kind of crap.

“I remember some ladies in high school who were poked fun of because they were athletes instead of cheerleaders.”

And then Wise had three children—two of them girls. And Wise’s past came flooding back to him.

“I felt embarrassed; I wanted to go back to high school and say, ‘I’m sorry,’” Wise said. “How brave they were to step up and say, ‘I love this game and I want to play.’ They struggled to get the equality they deserved.”

He used it as a history lesson with his players.

“I ask my young athletes, ‘Did you realize how this really was?’” he said. “It’s changed a lot.”

Title IX and the beginning of Wise’s soccer roots

Wise and his wife Janet, unlike their own school experience, were able to raise their children under Title IX, a section of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972. The law requires gender equality for boys and girls in any program that is federally funded, including sports.

“[My daughters] influenced me because I saw them being beautiful young ladies that chose an athletic path,” he said of his youngest daughter, Erin, who played soccer, and his oldest daughter, Mindy, who played basketball.

When Erin was about 8 years old, Wise was called upon to volunteer as a coach in her rec soccer league.

“I didn’t know anything about soccer, but I was willing to help,” he said. “They gave me a bag of balls and said, ‘Good luck.’

“At the time I was coaching my youngest was when the women’s national team was coming into prominence with the fab five and Mia Hamm. I didn’t think much about it in the beginning. It was just a game my kids played,” he continued. “But then I started following the national team and realizing how hard they struggled to be able to play the game they loved.”

It shocked him that these women played to crowds of 50,000 people in other countries and then flew home to the U.S. and had “five people waiting for them at JFK.”

“I thought, ‘What’s going on here? These are beautiful athletes and there’s no one?’” Wise said. “It’s strange, someone asks me, ‘Who are your heroes?’ and here I am, a 50-year-old guy, and I look up to these ladies. They just touched my heart. To accomplish what they accomplished in the face of real challenge.”

That “a-ha” moment started Wise on his soccer path.

“I just kept taking every soccer coaching course I could find,” he said of the journey that led him to become a United States Soccer Federation (USSF) licensed coach with 18 years of experience at the high school level, as well being a former Olympic Development Program coach for Ohio.

“It’s been a long trip from that one day when they handed me that bag of balls,” Wise said.

If you build it

Nearly 100 women reached out to Wise for the $60,000 tryout.

“They immediately responded and said, ‘I’d love to have some place to play,’ especially the ladies out of college who said, ‘What do I do now?’” said Wise, who needed a roster pool of 30-32 players. Up to 16 of them hold permanent roster spots and play year-round, while the remaining 15 to 16 are NCAA athletes and are only available during the summer. “They started coming, and I thought, ‘At last, I’m going to have a team.’”

Wise and his forward-thinking investors built the Columbus Eagles FC, part of the Women’s Premier Soccer League, the second-highest tier of female soccer and just one level below the National Women’s Soccer League—the pros.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mark and everything he’s done,” said 30-year-old Jessica Witzky, the team’s first captain and now its assistant coach as she awaits the birth of her first child. “Columbus needed someone like him to come in and not be worried about the politics of it and just do it for women’s soccer. Mark has just the greatest heart and his passion for making this work is so evident in everything he does.”

The Columbus Eagles will face Windsor (Canada), Motor City FC and Grand Rapids FC (both of Michigan), and FC Pride (Indiana) in the 2015-16 season, with the first game set for May 9 against the Cincinnati Lady Saints.

“In the league we’re in, we can play against professional leagues, we just can’t have any paid professionals on our team,” Wise said of his amateur team, which is partially made up of college athletes, who must abide by NCAA rules. Other teams in the league can choose to be designated semi-pro and pay their players.

The league includes players from national and international teams, a welcome slate of competition for elite female soccer players who have few places to go upon graduation.

“All of sudden you graduate, you’re 22 and you’re like, ‘Well everything I’ve known is gone,’” said Witzky, who grew up in Gahanna. “You have to settle for the local leagues wherever you’re living at the time. It’s frustrating.”

It’s a scenario Wise has seen repeated amongst his players over the last 18 years, and it’s another reason he’s so passionate to have the Eagles in town.

“You think about it, there are nine pro women’s teams, and they each carry a roster of 25 players. That’s the entire market for the ladies coming out of college,” Wise said. “So if they don’t get recruited into that, now they can come into our league.”

The Eagles finished the inaugural 2014-15 season with good attendance, averaging 125 people in the stands—double what was expected at their home venue, the Wellington School field.

“We’ve got a long road to go to take it from Premier League amateur status to where we’re drawing thousands of fans and in a bigger venue,” Wise said of his ultimate goal for Columbus women’s soccer. “I can draw the attention of the pro league at that time, so we can have a pro team in Columbus.”

A $1 million gamble

The price tag for entry into the women’s pro league is $1 million.

“I would have to get to the point of carrying a roster of 25 to 30 ladies who are out of NCAA eligibility,” said Wise, adding that the key to women’s pro soccer in America is it draws international attention. “You have foreign players wanting to come over here and play.”

Having a pro team in Columbus would be the perfect fit, according to Witzky.

“Columbus is known for having unbelievable talent, but we haven’t had anywhere for those athletes to come back and showcase those talents in their home state,” she said. “We’re trying to drive it as much as possible. It would be fantastic to have the Columbus Crew and the MLS and our team come into pro standing.”

But Wise, who converted his garage into an office to keep overhead costs down, needs bigger crowds, more financial support and more players.

“We just have to get the word out to people who know soccer,” said Wise, who’s hoping the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada from June 6 through July 5 this summer will spur more interest among female athletes and fans.

“We have to have more female viewers,” he continued. “More women need to step up and buy the tickets and support their peers.”

The Columbus Eagles are selling memberships for this season that provide entrance into any home game and 15 percent off merchandise. But perhaps the most important thing you get when you buy a ticket is the chance to give women an opportunity for athletic equality.

Moving the needle forward for women

“I think we have young ladies when you ask them about a favorite soccer player, they say a male soccer player,” said Wise, whose children are now grown—Mindy Nielsen is 34; Jeffrey Wise is 31; and Erin McCallun is 28. “It’s another barrier to break through in the young female mindset to say, ‘This is not a male game that we just get to play for a while.’ From a young female point of view, with the Eagles, they have someone of their gender to aspire to be.”

Witzky couldn’t agree more.

“For women, opportunities are few and far between. You kind of have to resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to go play in the adult co-ed leagues.”

She said the Eagles help get women on more equal footing with men in terms of providing opportunities to continue playing soccer at high levels.

“The longer the Eagles are here, the more girls can think differently—bigger. They get to aspire to this world of endless possibilities,” Witzky said. “It allows girls to have positive female role models and show what they can do if they set their minds to something. And there’s something really wonderful about that.”