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!