By Ridge Mahoney
The selection of Atlanta as the next MLS expansion team takes the league into territory where soccer has struggled but the NFL connection is powerful.
Arthur Blank, founder of Home Depot Center and owner of the Falcons, has for years been citing soccer as an important component in his efforts to fund and construct a new stadium. He’s convinced the MLS Board of Governors and on Wednesday came the official announcement, complete with downtown rally, to confirm the project by which a team will start play in 2017.
This move isn’t a surprise. For more than a year, Commissioner Don Garber has been bullishly praising Blank and his proposed stadium, and months ago MLS Atlanta graduated from ‘if’ to ‘when?’ status. Adding the ninth-largest TV market in North America fills out MLS teams in the Top 10, a key piece in its negotiations with TV partners on a new rights contract to replace the one that expires this year. Atlanta further expands the league’s pending footprint in the area, with Orlando City on board for 2015 and Miami in the mix.The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the expansion fee is $70 million, which is a bit more than what Anthony Precourt paid ($68 million) for the Crew and its stadium, and much less than the $100 million price tag the Manchester City ownership group has pledged to sign up Jason Kreis as head coach and play in Yankee Stadium for the foreseeable future. The New York Times ran a storyTuesday in which sources said NYCFC would play three seasons in the baseball park (an official announcement is now scheduled for Monday). Since the general rule of thumb is that any reasonable estimate of time to complete a project in New York City should be doubled, soccer in a baseball park for the rest of this decade looks quite possible.
Oh, well, at least it has grass. Along with dirt, plenty of dirt. There won’t be grass in Atlanta.
The newest version of FieldTurf will be installed, which adds yet another facility that a player such as Thierry Henry can refuse to play in. How will it look for a big Atlanta-Orlando City showdown if Kaka, for example, pulls an Henry? As the league escalates its star power, it also risks embarrassment when such a key player turns up his nose, and the league and his team do nothing. Blank said at the press conference that NFL logos and yard-lines won’t be visible during MLS games, but the same was believed regarding CenturyLink Field, which is a mess in late summer and early fall.
Adding an NFL owner bolsters the league’s portfolio and prestige, but the track record of merged operations isn’t good. Seattle is the exception. What if the Atlanta project turns into the underserved operations of New England and Kansas City, before the latter team was sold by Hunt Sports Group? The Wiz/Wizards regularly lagged near the bottom of MLS attendance charts and efforts to use the Chiefs’ marketing and sales staff to pump up the soccer operation failed dismally. The Revolution operates on a modest budget, would rather not sign a big-name player at a big salary, and has shown only token interest in finding a proper place to play rather than a cavernous NFL stadium with artificial turf.
The game suffers terribly on turf, and by extension so does the league’s integrity. There’s been nothing reported about the Atlanta team eventually finding its own facility, which gives Revolution owners Robert Kraft and Jonathan Kraft more reason to laugh off complaints about Gillette Stadium. One major flaw in the joint operation of the Seahawks and Sounders is a beat-up surface at CenturyLink Field that doesn't stand up well to excessive use; now that the teams have severed their operations, if one team is to be worse off regarding a playing surface, it’s the Sounders.
Pro football and soccer operations have worked together to stage international friendlies and competitions such as the Gold Cup. The Union and Eagles have staged international matches and the Union played its first two home games at the Linc while final touch-up work was done on PPL Park. But aside from Seattle, combined operations have labored, and Atlanta is not Seattle.
The Atlanta project is laden with ifs, though there is some institutional soccer knowledge in place. Former Crew general manager Jim Smith is the chief marketing and revenue officer of the Falcons, for which he’s worked since leaving the Crew in 2004.
If Blank can assemble a suitably large and motivated staff, if the business community jumps in energetically, if the stadium can be downsized -- B.C. Place in Vancouver has been mentioned as a model -- to enhance the game-day environment, and if a region devoted to golf and NASCAR and football that lost two hockey teams, the Flames and Thrashers, fervently adopts a soccer team, there’s a chance it can work. But on the other hand, if his NFL brethren, the Hunts and Krafts, didn’t plunge money into their teams, why should he?
Going into a glimmering new NFL stadium is unfortunate, but a better move than what exists in a few other cities. Heavy opposition is building against Beckham’s stunningly seductive yet wildly impractical PortMiami project. The Yankees may have snookered MLS into paying a hefty rental fee to use their pricey new home. Gillette will be with us for some time and so apparently will RFK Stadium, unless the carcass that is Buzzard Point truly does have a pulse. At least Orlando City is on track, though it will likely start its MLS existence in another football facility that has hosted soccer games, the Citrus Bowl.
What has gone before in Atlanta? The Chiefs won the first North American Soccer League title in 1968, after the National Professional Soccer League and United Soccer Association merged following a disastrous season of cannibalization. At the time, the NASL was in such dire straits that the visitor’s locker room at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium also served as league headquarters. An ownership change prompted a name change to Apollos, which eventually folded, as did NPSL, A-League and WPS franchises. The soccer competition at the 1996 Olympic Games hosted by Atlanta drew great crowds, though no games were played in the city. The minor-league Silverbacks, formed in 1999 and going well in the modern NASL, have sent several players to MLS and are currently employing Eric Wynalda as manager and technical director.
The new Atlanta stadium will be fabulous, with a dazzling retractable roof and all the modern amenities. It just won’t be a good home for MLS.