Atlanta awarded MLS franchise for 2017
ATLANTA — Citing the fact Atlanta was the largest television market in the United States without a Major League Soccer franchise, the league awarded Falcons owner Arthur Blank an expansion franchise for the 2017 season, making it the league’s 22nd team.
As of yet, the team has no name and no color scheme, although Blank said he expected to have some red, some black and some gold – the original colors of the Falcons. Ownership still has to hire employees to run the team and it can begin to sign and draft players in 2016, a league spokesman said.
Commissioner Don Garber said he and Blank had had discussions for 10 years but that with the completion of the new Falcons stadium in 2017, the time was right for Atlanta to receive a franchise. While MLS has succeeded with smaller, soccer-specific stadiums, Blank said the new $1.2-billion stadium, with a retractable roof, would have technology that will give it an intimate feel.
"The stadium will be able to widen out the lower seats," said Blank. "They’ll go out. We’ll have site lines directly down the field. The upper bowls will be veiled using technology with a unique approach so it’s going to have that intimacy that we know is important, really for all sports, but in this case for soccer, very specifically."
Blank said the lower bowl will seat 29,000, which will be an appropriate size for soccer at the outset. The field will have artificial turf; however, Blank said if the city is awarded FIFA-run events such as World Cup qualifiers or tournaments, the stadium will be able to produce a grass field.
Blank said he would bring the same approach to the team that he has to the Falcons, which he bought in 2002. Once one of the NFL’s moribund franchises, the Falcons have twice finished with the top record in their conference in the past four seasons and in the 2012-13 season they reached the NFC Championship Game, their second time doing so under Blank.
Blank pointed to the fact that he has spent near the NFL’s salary cap limit throughout his tenure in an effort to produce a winner and said he would do the same with his MLS team.
"So I promise you, whatever resources it’s going to take to give us a winning tradition that’s important not only on the field but off the field, you have the commitment from me," said Blank.
Blank mentioned two other NFL owners who own MLS franchises, the Seattle Seahawks’ Paul Allen and the New England Patriots’ Robert Kraft.
He said the two sports touch very different fan bases. He said the Seahawks and Sounders have a combined season ticket base of 95,000 but only 3 percent of those cross over and purchase tickets to both teams.
In addition to the size of the television market, Garber cited the footprint in the Southeast. MLS does not have a team in the Southeast from Washington, D.C., to Texas, which has teams in both Dallas and Houston. Orlando will receive a franchise in 2015 and David Beckham is backing a team in Miami.
But Atlanta’s demographics also were important. Garber said Atlanta is part of the growing "new America" that is digitally connected and that its soccer fans "get what’s going on in this world."
Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed said that Atlanta has the second fastest growing foreign-born population in the United States, which is expected to help make the team a success. He mentioned the 68,000 fans who showed up at the Georgia Dome in March for an exhibition game between Mexico and Nigeria.
While the awarding of a franchise to Atlanta has been criticized in some circles recently as the news of the announcement has been reported, Blank and Reed responded to the naysayers. Blank pointed out the Falcons’ success at the box office — the team has not had a home game blacked out on television for a lack of selling out since 2007.
"There’s nothing wrong with Atlanta fans," he said.
Reed put his faith in Blank to produce a quality product.
"Leadership matters and the owner matters," he said. "I certainly didn’t decide to support a $1.2-billion stadium prior to my reelection for nothing.
"If you put a winner on the field, people respond to winning."
Blank also had personal reasons for wanting a franchise. His son Josh plays club soccer, as do the children of his fiancée. Blank grew emotional in discussing those reasons.
"This decision is important for Atlanta, it’s important for us professionally, for myself and my family," he said. "… It’s meaningful to them, it’s meaningful to me."
Fans can go to the Web site mlsatlanta2017.com and put down a $50 deposit. The first 5,000 will have the right to purchase up to eight season tickets apiece and will earn the designation of being a "founder."