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Atlanta deal may be too good to pass up
by Paul Kennedy, April 14th, 2014 9:35PM

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TAGS:  mls, soccer business

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[MLS EXPANSION] Major League Soccer is set to unveil Atlanta as its 22nd club as Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, MLS Commissioner Don Garber and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, among others, will be on hand at Ventanas Wednesday afternoon for what has been described as a "major announcement." Unlike David Beckham's Miami team, whose launch is contingent on winning approval for a downtown soccer stadium, a plan is in place for a new Atlanta stadium. Here's what we know about the stadium.

-- The new stadium, scheduled to open in 2017, will replace the Georgia Dome, which only opened in 1992. The Falcons currently play in the Georgia Dome, owned by the same state stadium authority that will own the new downtown stadium, but Blank, who bought the Falcons in 2002, deemed the Georgia Dome unsuitable for remodeling.

-- The stadium will cost $1.2 billion and be paid for by stadium bonds issued by the Atlanta Development Authority and repaid by the city of Atlanta through a portion of revenues it receives from a hotel tax. A portion of those revenues will also be set aside each year to operate the stadium.

-- The Georgia World Congress Center Authority, which owns the Georgia Dome, will own the new stadium, though Falcons will run the stadium and keep the revenue in return for an annual rent of $2.5 million.

-- The financing plan for the stadium passed 11-4 in March 2013. Unable or unwilling to secure a stadium deal from Atlanta, the baseball Braves stunned civic leaders by announcing plans to move to suburban Cobb County after the 2016 season when their lease expires at Turner Field, where they've only played since 1997 after their move from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium at which the old soccer Chiefs played and plans to save pro soccer were hatched by the late Phil Woosnam and Clive Toye after the NASL's near-collapse in 1968.

Criticism of the new stadium centers on its location in two predominantly black neighborhoods, Vine City and English Avenue. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. brought his family to live there in 1967, and a street named after him will become a dead-end for stadium VIP parking. Plans call for the demolition of Atlanta’s first black Baptist church. A challenge by community leaders to the stadium project was heard last week in Fulton County Superior Court. It regards the bond measure, which as a matter of state law requires court review and approval.

The stadium will hold 71,000 seats for the Falcons, less for soccer. Blank says drapes will be placed around the stadium to create a more intimate atmosphere for soccer. Such draping is used at Vancouver's B.C. Place for Whitecap games. Like B.C. Place, the new Atlanta stadium will have a retractable roof. In October 2013, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the new stadium will have artificial turf instead of natural grass.

Of all the MLS expansion projects in the last decade, Atlanta's has received the most criticism. Much of it concerns the move into an NFL stadium, where MLS games will be played on turf and soccer won't be the primary tenant. There is also the fear that MLS is putting the cart before the horse, moving into a city where soccer does not have a history of success. (In five of their 10 seasons, the Chiefs averaged less than 5,000 a game.) And as Jason Davis noted last week at U.S. National Soccer Players web site, "The bar set by recent expansion success has spoiled American soccer fans."

But as other teams struggle with soccer stadium projects becoming embroiled in urban politics -- New York City FC may be stuck in Yankee Stadium for three years and face all kinds of problems sharing a baseball stadium, while D.C. United and Beckham's Miami group also face numerous obstacles -- a clean stadium deal seems too good to pass up when it is backed by an owner like Blank -- the Home Depot co-founder -- willing to invest heavily and enthusiastically in soccer.


8 comments
  1. James Hardern
    commented on: April 15, 2014 at 9:10 a.m.
    This is a joke. MLS is needs to ease up on expansion plans and only award those that play in soccer specific stadia. Watching soccer matches in NFL stadiums on artificial turf is BS. I don't care how many drapes they pull, you can't blind potential new fans from seeing a poor looking product. That aside, I've never believed that Atlanta could fully support an pro soccer franchise. They barely support the Falcons...

  1. I w Nowozeniuk
    commented on: April 15, 2014 at 12:20 p.m.
    I'm in agreement with JH. IMHO, this rapid expansion into Atlanta & Miami wreaks with more negatives than positives. In the past, both markets failed to embrace community support. Garber should be focused on DC United getting a soccer specific venue instead of expanding to questionable markets and watering down the player quality at the same time. Expansion without a soccer specific stadium presents more problems than it solves.

  1. Eric Falthzik
    commented on: April 15, 2014 at 12:48 p.m.
    You folks should really get your facts straight first. The stadium will cost $1.2 billion with the city paying $200 million thanks to a new hotel tax and Arthur Blank paying the rest...$1 billion dollars. As for the comment that Atlanta barely supports the Falcons. This is a joke. The Falcons are currently the hottest ticket in town and have sold out every home game for the last 10 years. As for the failed Atlanta Chiefs. This again is a baseless comment. The population of the metro area has doubled...that is right...doubled since the NASL was last here at Fulton County Stadium. We have hosted an Olympic games since that time. We are now the 8th largest media market in the country which means MLS can get some TV benefit from this deal that it sorely needs. Oh also...Atlanta has sold out the last two friendlies that Mexico has played in the Georgia Dome and the Silverbacks sell out their 7,500 seat stadium every week. I think that is better attendance than New England or Chivas USA. Spare me the criticism. The city is really excited to welcome MLS in a great, new state of the art stadium.

  1. James Hardern
    commented on: April 15, 2014 at 3:05 p.m.
    Eric, perhaps you should try to understand the posts before firing off a bunch of useless stats and facts, none of which will correlate to the success of an MLS franchise in Atlanta. We were not arguing stadium financing, Olympic history or population figures. Population numbers are nice, but in general irrelevant. The United States has had millions of kids playing youth soccer for years (more than any other sport) - why is it that professional soccer in the US ranks below all of the other major sports in revenue, television ratings and overall attendance? However, one thing that history has shown us is that leagues can expand themselves out of existence, or simply fail - has happened time and time again all to frequently in soccer. For Atlanta, like most anywhere else, the key will be ease of access, convenience of commute and ability to attract a much smaller market of soccer fans (and their dollars) to an inner city stadium (with most of that market probably residing in the suburbs). By the way, New England's and Chivas' 2014 attendance figures are both above 10,000 per game, so I'm not sure your Silverback point is too accurate. Still, MLS may do well in Atlanta - I hope it does. And I hope it looks like good soccer being played on a proper soccer pitch - not on the Falcon's home field. But the league has to be very careful to avoid watering down its product or looking like a second rate league. The NBA has recently suffered from this perception - too many sub par players on too many poor teams that just aren't good or entertaining. And MLS is on far shakier ground than the NBA, financially speaking. And you are right, the Falcons comment was a joke - I meant it as one!

  1. K.c. Mcelroy
    commented on: April 15, 2014 at 5:08 p.m.
    I agree with and like the MLS expansion. But I agree that they need to be more skeptical about who they choose to join. I'm still in favor of David Beckham owning a team, though.

  1. Glenn Maddock
    commented on: April 15, 2014 at 6:22 p.m.
    MLS has to be in the South to be a true national league. The issue is all the Southern cities are shaky soccer markets at best. I'm not sure Orlando has 20k soccer fans. Miami is a poor sports town, and Atlanta is too. Most ATL fans are in the suburbs. The fact that Blank didn't partner with the Silverbacks, tells me he's not embraced the local soccer community yet.

  1. Mark Hardt
    commented on: April 15, 2014 at 7:04 p.m.
    I agree with Glenn Mattlock the bass player for the Sex Pistols or is that Maddock. In any case I live in Tampa and the Mutiny folded. The new Rowdies draw about 3-7 k at a minor league baseball park. It is a horrible place to see soccer. Florida is Football country. Georgia loves American Football and not much else. Hockey, Soccer have all failed there.

  1. J david Cepicka
    commented on: April 16, 2014 at 12:01 p.m.
    Most of these comments positive and negative would appear to be well thought out. To become a "top level" league in world, they should outlaw artificial turf. It is despicable that professional soccer at any level is played on a artificial surface.


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