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MLS's Atlanta push is basically a slam dunk
by Paul Kennedy, September 16th, 2013 5:37PM

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TAGS:  mls, soccer business


By Paul Kennedy

When MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced at the All-Star Game six weeks ago that the league's plan was to expand to 24 teams by 2020, the names of a dozen or so cities representing all parts of the country were immediately dropped as expansion candidates.

Each city has its advantages and certainly committed soccer boosters championing its cause, but at the end of the day a few key factors are going to weigh heavily in MLS's decision-making: first and foremost location, then owner commitment and stadium plans -- basically a package deal -- and demographics.

All make Atlanta a slam dunk, the third of the big three along with Orlando and Miami on the expansion horizon that will give MLS a significant presence in the South, where it has been absent since the demise of the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion in 2001.

Atlanta isn't ready to sign on the dotted line but it does present MLS several important strategic advantages.

It offers MLS a clean deal: a wealthy investor willing to step up with a new stadium. Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank has owned the NFL Falcons since 2002 and has plans to build a new football stadium in the Vine City section of Atlanta.

Sources told the Atlanta Journal Constitution last week that Blank was in "significant discussions" with MLS. He is no stranger to soccer as he is heavily involved as a soccer parent. One of his sons, Josh, plays for the Concorde Fire, a perennial Soccer America Top 30 youth club.

Plans for the new football stadium to replace (already) the indoor Georgia Dome call for it to be designed to accommodate soccer (field width and down-sized seating configuration). The model for the Atlanta stadium is Seattle's CenturyLink Field and Vancouver's B.C. Place, both downtown football stadiums downsized for soccer with retractable roofs but with one big exception. The Atlanta stadium will have grass, not turf.

Blank and Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed have an understanding on the financing of the $1 billion stadium costs, but there are still lots of hurdles to overcome. The first: get an agreement from two neighborhood Baptist churches -- for a hefty fee -- to move so the new stadium can be built on space where they are located south of the Georgia Dome. Blank and Reed hope to have confirmation of the downtown site in the next few days and a timetable for completion of the stadium project.

There is no suitable short-term site for an MLS team, so an Atlanta expansion team would not likely begin before 2017 or 2018 -- which is actually a plus. It would give MLS time to get its other expansion teams, beginning with NYCFC (and perhaps Orlando) in 2015, up and running and stagger the stocking of the expansion rosters all while having a confirmed expansion team not only gearing up for its launch but gearing up with the apparatus of an NFL team behind it.

American pro soccer's roots are in Atlanta, more specifically the locker-room office out of the old Atlanta Fulton County Stadium where the late Phil Woosnam and Clive Toye schemed to save the NASL after it contracted from 17 teams in 1968 to five in 1969, though nostalgia alone won't make an MLS expansion team.

The NASL Chiefs never drew well and folded after two attempts (1967-73 and 1979-81). The Silverbacks, the spring champions of the new NASL, draw reasonably well but only play in a 5,000-seat facility.

Atlanta is the ninth largest metropolitan area in the country, and only Miami at No. 8 is a bigger market without an MLS team. Atlanta touts itself as attractive to Generation Y workers who form the key demo of MLS fans, males 18-34, and boasts a large Latino population attracted to South during the building boom of the last decade.

An Atlanta team would also give MLS reach into the surrounding South Atlantic states that are again experiencing high job growth.

Above all, an Atlanta MLS team would give it another downtown team that it is counting on be the wave of the future after its recent successes in Seattle, Vancouver and Portland.
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5 comments
  1. Kerry Solomon
    commented on: September 16, 2013 at 6:33 p.m.
    No offense to Atlanta, Orlando or Miami but why would you go to markets that have continually failed to attract fans and have franchises that have failed several times over the years. It's a similar condition in San Diego. That city always comes up in expansion talks and it has never been successful either. Markets that are strong in youth soccer or cities that can draw from a few neighboring cities i.e. Minneapolis should be considered. Expansion should only happen when the success is fairly a sure thing and not for just the sake of expansion. Expansion does not correlate to success. Be very careful, Mr. Garber.

  1. Ric Fonseca
    commented on: September 16, 2013 at 7:02 p.m.
    Mr. Solomon, funny I had the very same thoughts about attracting fans,and one must take into account extreme summer heat (except for San Diego) and but Minneapolis, given that is the city where the USA summer cup is held, well, I still have some doubts about that city. Why not San Francisco? Just a thought!

  1. Bruce Gowan
    commented on: September 16, 2013 at 7:35 p.m.
    Just one point of fact is that soccer does not exist "in Atlanta". Soccer is in the suburbs of Atlanta. Locating a soccer stadium in downtown Atlanta will require soccer fans to travel quite some distance from outside the city. In response to Mr Solomon's statement the Fusion did not fold because of lack of fans. It was the lack of ownership. Also note that the Orlando USL team is drawing very well. Check out the attendance figures for the recent international games held in Miami. I guess I am not aware of the history of professional soccer attendance in Minneapolis.

  1. Bruce Moorhead
    commented on: September 18, 2013 at 5:10 a.m.
    Ric - there is already a team in the S.F. area, the Earthquakes! Bruce - there were some good crowds for the Minnesota Kicks of the NASL in the late 1970's, up to 30,000 I believe.

  1. Kerry Solomon
    commented on: September 18, 2013 at 8:09 p.m.
    Gentlemen: Lack of fans or poor management have plagued these franchises for a long time and over & over again so, why go back for more disappointment. Orlando may have a chance to succeed. I'm totally in favor of expansion but do it slowly and only when there is a great chance of success. My point about Minneapolis was that it was a city that can draw from other cities close by and it has a strong youth program. I'm not saying that it is necessarily an option but the parameters surrounding it demographics is a favorable scenario.


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