Everything you need to know about MLS to Atlanta

MLS commissioner Don Garber flew to the venue by helicopter to confirm Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank of the investor/operator of a new team slated to start play in 2017.

Kevin Liles/Getty Images

ATLANTA

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank and MLS commissioner Don Garber confirmed the inevitable on Wednesday afternoon: Atlanta will join MLS in 2017.

The decision constitutes an important landmark for MLS in its continued quest to broaden its footprint and strengthen its core. The arrival of the nation’s ninth-largest city creates yet another building block in the Southeast and marks a substantive step toward fulfilling Garber’s stated goal of expanding the league to 24 teams by the end of the decade.

Blank and Garber led the celebrations downtown in the wake of the announcement. Join Atlanta on its journey from inception to expansion with this primer.

Why does MLS want to expand to Atlanta? It is the largest market in the country without a team. It boasts the right mix of business interests and favorable demographics. It possesses a ready-made, if somewhat imperfect, stadium plan to place the team downtown. Oh, and a billionaire with ample experience in professional sports wants to pay an expansion fee in the high eight figures for the new club after investigating the idea for nearly a decade.

"This is a market much different than the average American or Canadian thinks," Garber said. "It’s incredibly diverse. It’s very young. Most of those young people are working at corporations downtown and they are living downtown. There is a very large Hispanic market, larger than most people understand. It’s the perfect market. It’s part of what drove us to continue the discussions that started with Arthur 10 years ago. That got started in earnest again two years ago."

Fair enough. So what does Arthur Blank get out of the fairly expensive deal?: Blank is in the middle of shepherding a $1.2 billion stadium project toward a 2017 completion date. The new facility will cost him the better part of that price tag. He needs tenants to help fill dates. Owning a soccer team in a facility he will operate makes a whole lot of sense from a revenue perspective.

Although the business side matters to the bottom line, it did not actually drive the choice to invest, according to Blank.

"That wasn’t part of the decision at all," Blank said. "We needed a place to play soccer. We’re spending a fair amount of capital to make sure that the stadium is soccer-specific when MLS is playing there and, hopefully, God willing, the World Cup and FIFA are playing there. But that was not a factor at all. We weren’t looking for something to fill up dates."

This decision isn’t just about the money, right? Nope. Blank’s children and future stepchildren play for local youth club Concorde Fire. He grasps the appeal of the game. And he thinks this expansion side is the right move for both himself and his adopted city.

"The chance to do this as a family is wonderful, but it’s really beyond the family," Blank said. "More importantly, it’s about the soccer family of Atlanta and of the state. It’s an opportunity to create another franchise the people will be proud of, not only winning, but with a great gameday experience and making a difference in these communities by giving back in any possible way we can."

But will his team play in the right stadium? The new, 65,000-seat venue won’t tick a lot of boxes for the soccer purists: it will have an artificial surface and use technology similar to the system deployed at B.C. Place to reduce capacity for soccer matches (though this version will be automatic, not manual). But the location (accessible from downtown, familiar to residents and proximate to MARTA and the perpetually congested highways) and the revenue flow (a team controlled by Blank playing in a venue managed by the Atlanta Falcons) mitigate those genuine concerns quite a bit. The prospect of playing air conditioned matches during the summer with the retractable roof closed is a nice perk, too.

"A very similar concept and environment is working pretty well in Seattle," Garber said. "One of the unique aspects of running an emerging business is that you have to pivot when the market shifts. We started with the idea that we’d be tenants in NFL stadiums. We then went to small, soccer-specific stadiums in outlying areas. Then we went to building complexes. And then we got downtown with Toronto and Seattle. It was a eureka moment: it was the downtown nature that was the driver of success, not necessarily the size of the stadium as long as you can downsize it appropriately to make it work."

How much downsizing is involved here? Blank said the lower bowl of the new stadium will hold 29,000 fans. 

That number is pretty high. Will the fans actually show up for games? More likely than not, but Blank might want to splash the cash on a Mexican national team star for his new team just in case. El Tri just drew 68,212 fans to the Georgia Dome for a friendly against Nigeria last month. It isn’t quite as straightforward to entice fans to attend 17 (give or take, depending on the schedule) home matches for a MLS team.

BREAKDOWN ON MLS IN ATL

Atlanta holds a rather mixed record in the attendance department – good for the Braves and Falcons (especially since Blank assumed control in 2002), not so good for the Hawks and the departed Thrashers – that may or may not translate here. The demographics fit the league’s target group well enough. The initial enthusiasm – spurred by Terminus Legion, a supporters’ group vocal in its support for bringing a MLS team to Atlanta – offers some encouragement. But this market will need to prove itself to a league with quickly increasing standards in these matters.

"I think if you just look at the demographics, it’s a growing city," Terminus Legion founder Matt Stigall said. "It’s international and very diverse. And there is the passion for soccer. We’ve shown it. When it was time for the city to show it – the Mexican national team, some club games in the Dome, all of those – we’re always packing it up. With Terminus Legion, we’re showing there is a passionate core of supporters who will be there to support the team."

Is there a downside if Atlanta falls short of the mark?: Yes, but it isn’t as large as most people suspect. MLS is headed for 24 teams by the end of the decade. It will likely add a few more after that stage. In a league of that size, there is some room for deviation.

Not every team needs to adhere to the desired model or transform into the next Portland or Seattle (or any one of several other teams, for that matter) to vindicate the decision to expand. Sure, it’d be nice to have 24 (or more) wildly successful teams playing in soccer-specific stadiums with perfect grass surfaces. Reality doesn’t always dovetail neatly with ambition, though.

Atlanta is a large market with an wealthy and well respected investor/operator willing to pay a significant expansion fee to place a team in a stadium he operates. It makes perfect sense to expand here, even with the attendance, stadium and surface foibles in play. And if a team with this sort of infrastructure eventually settles into the bottom half of the pecking order instead of the top half, then it is a sign that the league has strengthened considerably.

What are the next steps?: Blank said he wants to hire a team president to start building the organization. He also noted that he plans to reach out to fans to gather feedback on the team colors and name.

One last, minor tidbit: Why is Atlanta number 22? Isn’t Miami number 22?: David Beckham exercised his contractual option to invest in a club. He plans to place the team in Miami. He must, however, reach an agreement on a stadium deal before the league will officially award him a franchise. No such deal exists at the current time. And that’s why Atlanta, not Miami, is the 22nd club to join MLS. Expect the folks from both sides to continue the debate on this topic as the start date approaches.