Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Atlanta confirmed as Major League Soccer's next expansion market

Major League Soccer's wave of expansion across the south is headed to the region's biggest metropolis.

Atlanta confirmed as Major League Soccer’s next expansion market

The downtown Atlanta skyline. (Mike Stewart/AP)
The downtown Atlanta skyline. (Mike Stewart/AP)

Major League Soccer’s wave of expansion across the south is headed to the region’s biggest metropolis. 

Multiple sources with knowledge of the situation have confirmed to me that Atlanta will be officially awarded MLS’ 22nd franchise later this month.

Although a spokesperson for the league said that a formal agreement has not yet been finalized, I’ve heard seprarately that a public announcement could come very soon. One source targeted April 16 as a date to watch for the official news.

(After my initial report of the date for the announcement, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution confirmed it.)

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The team will be run in association with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, whose owner, Arthur Blank, has been in negotiations with MLS for some time. Blank also founded the Home Depot chain, which is a major commercial sponsor of both MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation.

Atlanta’s MLS team will be a co-tenant with the Falcons in their new outdoor stadium, which is set to open in 2017. It will be located next to the Georgia Dome, the Falcons' current home in the heart of downtown. Among the site's benefits: it's well-served by public transit. There's a MARTA rail station just over a block away

(That's not something to take for granted, as any of you who've ever been to Atlanta know. The region is notorious for being car-oriented, and the city center isn't all that pedestrian-friendly.)

From the stadium renderings I’ve seen, the design is such that the upper bowls can be partitioned off to create a smaller, more soccer-friendly atmosphere. It is a model similar to Vancouver’s B.C. Place. The venue will also have a retractable roof, which will help keep Atlanta's sultry summers at bay.

The stadium will not, however, have natural grass. It will have an artificial playing surface, a fact that is likely to raise the ire of some soccer fans (and players).

You probably also noticed I said above that Atlanta will get MLS’ 22nd franchise, not its 23rd. And you might wonder how that is possible, since Miami was already announced as the 22nd market that will have a MLS team.

The answer comes in two parts. First, Miami was not technically awarded an expansion franchise. David Beckham exercised an option in a previous contract with the league to buy into an expansion franchise at a discounted price. But Beckham and Miami won’t officially get their team until a stadium deal is in place.

Second, and most importantly, Atlanta’s MLS team could kick off before Miami’s. The Falcons’ new stadium is on track to open in 2017, which gives the Atlanta MLS team a hard goal to aim for. Because Miami has not had its stadium approved yet, there’s no certainty as of now about exactly when they’ll start. Beckham himself recently said that the current goal for opening a new venue in downtown Miami is 2018.

Going into Atlanta will be Major League Soccer’s biggest and most controversial expansion since the Philadelphia Union joined the league in 2010. Though the two cities are different in countless ways, they both have sports cultures that have been firmly entrenched for many years. Just as it has not been easy for the Union to gain real prominence in this region, the Atlanta MLS team will also likely struggle for its niche.

Of course, Atlanta has plenty of benefits. Not for nothing is it known as the Capital of the South. It is the region’s hub of business, culture and media, with an influence that extends well beyond city and state lines. Atlanta's MLS team will draw fans not just from Georgia, but also from Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Statistically, the Atlanta region is the nation’s ninth-largest population area, and the only one of the top 10 currently without a MLS team. It also is well-known for its large African-American population and a burgeoning Hispanic community. The league has not always excelled at attracting those demographics, though it does so better now than it used to.

Atlanta also does have a soccer team now, albeit in the second-tier North American Soccer League. The Silverbacks drew an average of 4,677 fans per game last year over 13 games, the fourth-highest average crowd in the NASL. They play at a 5,000-seat stadium located about 15 miles outside of downtown Atlanta, near a junction of two major interstate highways.

(I should note that it's not yet clear whether the Silverbacks will have any involvement with the MLS team, or what will happen to them after the MLS team comes to town. As of now, it seems that the MLS ownership group is operating separately.)

The Georgia Dome has also hosted a few friendlies in recent years, as well as a quarterfinal doubleheader in the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Most of those games have involved the Mexican national team or Mexican clubs. As with most major cities that have large Mexican immigrant population, those events have drawn well. Most recently, a Mexico-Nigeria friendly on March 5 drew a paid crowd of 68,212.

Showing up for events is not the same as buying season tickets, though. Atlanta has long been known as a sports market that doesn't turn out for run-of-the-mill sporting events. That should raise a red flag in the soccer community. The biggest thing that separates soccer from all other sports in this country is the in-stadium atmosphere created from a big and raucous crowd. It's fair to ask aloud whether Atlanta will deliver that.

Yes, there’s loads of support in Georgia as a whole for college football, NASCAR and golf. But Athens and Augusta aren’t Atlanta itself. Look no further than Major League Baseball’s Braves, the city’s signature outdoor sports team. Despite being one of the sport’s elite performers almost every year, the Braves have only once cracked the top 10 of MLB’s average per-game attendance rankings since 2001.

Since moving to Turner Field in 1997, the Braves finished four seasons with average attendance below 30,000 fans per game. They have not drawn 3,000,000 total fans in a season - a standard industry benchmark for success at the gate - since 1999.

To be fair, the Braves play in a stadium that is far too big. Turner Field was built out of the stadium that hosted the 1996 Olympics, and has a current capacity of 50,096. Only New York’s new Yankee Stadium, Denver’s Coors Field and Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium seat more.

The theme of a team playing in a stadium that’s too big for itself is all too familiar to MLS fans. For much of the last decade, the league successfully beat back that history by building stadiums on a soccer-friendly scale. But it didn’t finish the task. The New England Revolution and D.C. United remain stuck in cavernous venues that make no sense for them.

Now it looks like the league is headed back down an old path. It could well work, as Seattle has. But the Sounders seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

If MLS can make its plans for Atlanta succeed, we’ll know for sure that the league has truly made it. For now, though, all we know is that the stakes have never been higher.

Staff Writer
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The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, the National Women's Soccer League, the U.S. men's and women's national teams, and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Jonathan Tannenwald Staff Writer
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