05 July 2008

Atlanta Soccer Commentary: MLS in Atlanta? Why Not Make it a Double?

Can Atlanta support an MLS franchise? That's the question that Arthur Blank has asked Dick Sullivan, a former Home Depot executive who previously had been the Falcons' Executive Vice President of Marketing.

Mr. Sullivan is on leave from that post to help Mr. Blank with some of his other special projects. One such project is a due diligence effort to discover what it will take to bring the MLS to Atlanta.

Atlanta, on the surface, would seem to be a logical market for expansion. The city is home to professional teams in American football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. Atlanta is home to tens of thousands of soccer players of all ages scattered across the Metro area playing in scores of youth and amateur leagues - making for a large and lucrative soccer literate population. Not too mention, at least anecdotally, soccer parents have money. So will Atlanta be able to capitalize on the biggest growth sport in the nation?

Let’s first have a look at the Silverbacks, Atlanta's professional USL team. The Backs are relatively well supported by the local Atlanta soccer scene. They have a slowly evolving soccer specific stadium at REMAX Greater Atlanta Stadium. By the time the fourth phase of construction is complete, the stadium will have 15,000 seats. About 10,000 shy of MLS’s target, but still not a bad venue at all. But unless MLS and USL adopt a promotion / relegation system, despite what the US Open Cup teaches us, the USL will always play second fiddle.

The real challenge in my view: the Atlanta sports fan.

Atlanta sports fans are a notoriously fickle bunch.

Whether it’s the Falcons, the Braves, or the Hawks; unless they’re winning, Atlanta’s sports fans just don’t seem to show up. The effort is too great - the hassle outweighs the benefit.

In defense of Atlanta sports fans, part of the challenge is the fact that the "city" is actually a metro area spread over 28 counties. Arthur Blank knows that taking the time to find the right stadium location; a location that will provide enough convenience to make the trip worthwhile, is paramount to success.

Put a club in Gwinnett, and you probably lose Cobb. Put it in Cobb and you most likely lose Gwinnett. Put it in either and you probably lose all of the Southside. And the tradeoffs continue with just about every scenario.

So exactly what is the right mix? Can Atlanta support an MLS franchise? I think the answer is not as easy as it seems.

I have a crazy idea. I know it’s crazy and that I probably lose credibility based on my delusion; but…

Atlanta needs two teams. Yes, I said two teams. I told you it was crazy, but hear me out.

I see no reason why a metro area that’s roughly the size (in population) of Denmark, can’t support more than one professional football club. Two teams would not dilute Atlanta’s soccer population and in fact, my hypothesis is that two teams would actually strengthen fan commitment to their respective team! I have a theory that one of the two keys to true spectator success for soccer in America, is more teams in closer proximity (the other is promotion and relegation...but that's a subject for another beer).

Stadiums, true Soccer Specific Stadiums (SSSs), are meant to be intimate. Atlanta will not be supporting a Wembley or Stamford Bridge anytime soon, but a couple of Craven Cottages are absolutely within reason! And without the benefit of a storied history, fan/player intimacy is a critical ingredient for fostering the kind of fan support and energy you find in football all over the world.

Two clubs in stadiums central to Northside vs. Southside or Eastside vs. Westside population centers could easily see Atlanta playing host to the first true derby series in American soccer. I know Texas claims a derby between F.C. Dallas and Houston Dynamo – but come on, New York City and Washington D.C. are closer than those two Texas giants.

My idea is auspicious sure. But not completely beyond reality. London supports 13 football clubs; five of which are in the Premiership! Most true fans I know, the guys who woke up at 2:00AM to watch the National Team in Korea, would love to kit up with scarves and paint, and head out to support THEIR team – a team with some local talent – with some home grown players who got picked up through THEIR local club systems, a team with players they might see on the weekend at a movie or at a restaurant somewhere. Atlanta’s sports fans – indeed most American sports fans, simply haven’t had access to this type of scenario.

Many Americans on the fringe, whose exposure to football is the occasional European Championship or World Cup match, just don’t understand the atmosphere – the commitment – the songs - the scarves - the standing - the unity - the fact that a hundred thousand people are at a match, to watch the match, with minimal distractions.

What many Americans may not realize is this same drama takes place every Saturday and Sunday in club leagues all over Europe, Africa, South America, and Asia.

Atlanta is missing this, and Atlantans are missing out on this. Now is the time to create this atmosphere in Atlanta. To destroy our collective apathy as sports fans…to create true clubs with the kind of atmosphere surrounding them that builds a deep fan base behind a true local team. Your team.

Get your scarves ready!


Money Maker said...

Your article is AWESOME!!! I completely agree with the points made, especially about people not understanding the atmosphere at a real soccer derby between city rivals!

Looking forward to more ...


Gruffgoat said...

Thanks Stevo,
I'm digging for some more intel on the potential for a move to Atlanta but let's hope the MLS folks start thinking what soccer could really look like in America!

Anonymous said...

I have heard from a pretty reliable source that a very rich person and the Silverbacks might be joining forces to put the Silverbacks in MLS. Silverbacks Park now has some major issues to work out such as parking and access roads but it can be made to work. The stadium can probably be expanded beyond 15,000.

Bobbo said...

MLS in Atlanta? Why not make it a double? I never knew it was even a single. According to you, fans in Atlanta only support a winning team. Baseball,football and basketball are ahead of soccer in popularity so what happens if the MLS Atlanta Sparrows(Hawks Falcons) aren't succesful? Chivas USA and the LA Galaxy share a city and the majority of fans are Mexican or South/Central American desent. The number one sport in Mexico and South and Central America is soccer. If Atlanta wasn't in the south then I think you might have a chance of getting your MLS. Regarding the USA National team...It takes athletic ability to shoot and pass and control the ball while running full speed. Lionel Messi or Christiano Ronaldo are excellant athletes and my nations soccer team lacks that. I used Barry Sanders and Ladanian Tomlinson as examples and they are not over 6 feet or track stars. I love soccer but its hard to watch our team look ugly playing the beautiful game. I hope you get your double Gruff. Cheers mate from your new pal, Robby

Gruffgoat said...

Atlantans might even get behind mediocre performers if it wasn't so damned inconvenient to get anywhere in this city.

That's the problem with Silverbacks park now, it's literally under Spaghetti junction; an area Atlanta drivers dread like the plague.

My thinking is, you put an SSS in Cobb County and another one in Gwinnett County, I think you could get 20K people to matches. It's not the big bang approach for sure and definitely risky (I'm not floating in that kind of capital fo sho) but I think that model will work better than putting a stadium in downtown and forcing everyone to drive in.

Hey Robby, thanks for the feedback by the way! I'm going to write a piece on this whole athleticism debate - I seem to be having it all the time these days, at dinner, at the bar, at the pitch, online, etc. (most everyone agrees with you, so I've got to think about this one for awhile) and it is fascinating! Cheers

FxB said...

Two MLS clubs in the ATL? I don't believe the support exists. Indeed, a two-club project hasn't been all that successful in L.A., which is the ideal American soccer market.

Consider attendance at recent Chivas USA matches:

13,561 against San Jose on July 5
24,413 against Chicago on June 19
10,573 against Salt Lake on June 14
12,388 against the Crew on May 31

When Blanco isn't visiting, Chivas can't draw more support than the Silverbacks can fit in their stadium.

Looking at those numbers, then, I don't know that MLS is ready for another such arrangement. The league needs big clubs drawing steady support.

I could see an MLS-USL pairing in Atlanta, however, with the USL club serving as the farm team for the big boys, but the market (both in Atlanta and in the US generally) just isn't developed enough.

Gruffgoat said...

I totally agree that 2 teams in the Atlanta metro area is most likely pie in the sky thinking. I do however believe it's an alternative (albeit risky) that folks here haven't considered.

I guess my point is that the storied English football clubs rose out of neighborhoods (Highbury, White Hart Lane, Stamford Bridge, etc.), not out of metropolis' like NFL franchises...and until people connect that way, it's going to be a tough road.

I do think that MLS, USL, and even PDL need to seriously figure out how to work promotion and relegation in to the model...that could provide a starting point for building a grassroots style fan base for these clubs.