Soccer America Q&A: Falcons' Jim Smith on MLS Atlanta

Former Columbus Crew president/general manager Jim Smith is playing a major role in the launch of an MLS team in Atlanta, backed by Home Depot founder and NFL Falcons' owner Arthur Blank. Smith left the Crew in 2004 to join the Falcons and is the team’s chief marketing and revenue officer. He will work closely with Tottenham executive Darren Eales, whose hiring as president of the MLS team was announced on Wednesday.

The NFL and MLS teams will play in a stadium under construction in downtown Atlanta which features a retractable roof and configurations for different events.

Stadium video:

Interview by Ridge Mahoney

SOCCER AMERICA: An obvious question is why aren’t you -- with your background of running an MLS team and more than a decade of experience in the Falcons’ organization -- taking this job?

JIM SMITH: Arthur was great. He asked me if I was interested and I told him the projects we have in front of us -- while I love soccer -- the stadium project and the monumental task we have to raise the funding for that, it’s enough for me right now. Especially when the number is over a billion [dollars].

SA: That number didn’t faze your competitor in Dallas, Jerry Jones.

SMITH: Yeah, he did all right. He did well.

SA: A brand-new stadium and affiliation with an NFL team were surely attractive enticements in the hiring process of a team president. What was the response when that process began?

SMITH: We announced the team April 16, hired Korn Ferry in May, and we started interviews in June.

Korn Ferry did an outstanding job of identifying a large number of high-quality candidates. I can tell you from the experience how far the league has evolved by just the quality of the candidates that were interested in our opportunity. [Korn Ferry] did a great job scouring the world and scouring our country for top-flight executives.

Korn Ferry really focused their efforts on soccer organizations. That doesn’t mean we didn’t consider other candidates, but the majority came with either a significant soccer background or from other soccer clubs. They found Darren, they brought him to us, and we had a small committee at first and then a broader committee within our organization that interviewed all the finalists.

SA: How many finalists were there?

SMITH: Three. CEOs from corporate America, they like that number.

SA: What were your first impressions of him?

SMITH: Our first impression of Darren was very positive but our first impression of all the candidates was very positive. I think as the process moved and we did more of our due diligence and we had subsequent interviews, Darren definitely materialized as the leading candidate.

SA: Why? What about Eales stood out?

SMITH: He’s very smart and clearly has the soccer knowledge to do the job. One thing was how [Tottenham] work collaboratively, because we are a very collaborative organization, and coming into this system of collaboration is really important. He comes from a very collaborative environment.

When you look at the facilities involved with, he was clearly involved. We want to have the right facilities for our MLS team -- doesn’t mean we’re building what they have -- but it’s what we need.

And we really like the youth development piece, both with [players] that have played for the first team and those transferred to other clubs. All those experiences were really important for us.

You can check the references or you can just call Ivan [Gazidis]. He’s going to tell you he’s an A-plus person. It’s nice to have a guy we worked with for a long period of time, in the EPL, who happened to know Darren on top of it all.

(Note: Former MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis took over as Arsenal CEO in January 2009.)

SA: How much crossover will there be in resources and personnel between the NFL operations and those of the MLS team? There are examples of success, i.e., Seattle, and struggle in Kansas City and New England.

SMITH: Everybody asked us about that, because they’ve heard about the different situations that have occurred in MLS: some of them have worked very well, and some that haven’t worked so well. We have clearly said that we’re going to commit every possible resource we can to have a successful Major league Soccer franchise.

We’re going to write the blueprint together once he gets into the market and identify the areas in which it really makes sense for our sports enterprise to assist, and which parts of the business really need to be stand-alone MLS.

SA: That would seem to put a lot of the burden on you as well as him. What will your role be once he comes aboard?

SMITH: I can help because I know the market so well and I know our internal staff. I know who is capable and who isn’t. Darren needs to learn how we all operate. Once he’s comfortable with it, there are some things we can definitely work together on. On the things he wants stand-alone, we’re going to create stand-alone.

SA: The demographics in Atlanta are changing, as they are in many parts of the country, yet there’s also a perception that football dominates the South. How do you see the market in a soccer perspective?

SMITH: There’s a real, true passion for soccer in this market: from a youth standpoint, from a young adult standpoint. Even though it’s an enormous football market, both pro and college, it’s a big soccer market, and the early response to our Founders’ Club has proven that out. (Note: More than 5,000 fans have pledged to buy approximately 15,500 season tickets as part of the Founders’ Club program.)

I think Atlanta is much more like Seattle than any of the other markets in MLS. I say that because of the young, well-educated people who live in Atlanta. There are two major downtown colleges, Georgia Tech and Georgia State. There’s a population of young people already living in the city.

Then you bring the young graduates from around the Southeast, because Atlanta is the hub in the Southeast. People move to Atlanta after graduation from many institutions. It is a destination for young people and MLS has done such a great job of cultivating that young demographic as fans, and we have done a great job of that early on here.

Then you combine that with the rest of the soccer audience, the traditionalists who’ve enjoyed soccer and been waiting for their moment to have a soccer team.

SA: In some ways do you see this as a regional team that extends well beyond the Atlanta area?

SMITH: For the time being, we’re the team in the Southeast. There’s no team in Tennnessee, South Carolina, or Alabama. Those markets we should be able to own for soccer fans and be able to distribute television rights and sell season tickets. That’s another big benefit.

We have Falcon season-ticket holders in Birmingham, so I fully expect that we’re going to have MLS Atlanta fans in Birmingham. Same thing in Greenville and Chattanooga.

SA: Would planting a team in Atlanta made sense 10 years ago, when your first arrived in the city?

SMITH: That’s a good question, Ridge, I don’t think anybody’s asked me that. Ten years ago, I’m not sure. I wouldn’t have known the market as well as I do now. Ten years ago, I don’t know. Five years ago, yes, I felt that it was going to be a good market. And it’s just continued to get better.

SA: What other factors do you see working in your favor?

SMITH: The one thing the people in Atlanta know that probably the rest of the country doesn’t know, or if they do know they take it for granted, our owner is really well-respected. And he’s well-respected because he’s always going to put out a quality product. He’s going to invest whatever it takes for the fans to fee, good about the team. I think that’s the thing that’s really resonated along with the demographics and our great venue. We have an owner people already believe in and we’re two and half years from playing.


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