Soccer, Sports

MLS Is Going To Work In Atlanta, Despite Every Baseless Excuse

Another day, another half-assed full-length YouTube comment article telling everyone why Atlanta can’t support the beautiful game. Or at least the American attempt at the Beautiful Game.

Last week Atlanta was awarded the 22nd MLS franchise, to begin play in 2017. It was a joyous occasion for the city for multiple reasons. First is the obvious as fans of soccer in the city finally got the official announcement that Atlanta has been seemingly waiting a decade for with the best part being that local hero, Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank would be heading the new franchise. Uncle Arthur is easily the favorite sports owner in the city considering the dumpster fire that is the Atlanta Spirit Group (more on that in a second) and the recent decision to move the Braves to Cobb County.

Second, the new straight from a sci-fi movie downtown Atlanta stadium gains another tenant. And that’s good news considering the city is paying $200 Million for the new digs which will have a total cost projected around $1.2 Billion. So with that much cash flying around, it is good news to have another major (yes, major) sports entity moving in for 17 regular season home games a year.

So yes, we in Atlanta were plenty happy for the announcement. Hey look, there I am!

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And look – lots of other people who left work early (or didn’t have to work…I don’t judge)!!

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Look at all the happy people!! (well, we were actually all waiting for the damn screen to work at the moment…but trust me…happy!!!). Meanwhile one person who I can guarantee was not on-site for the Atlanta announcement was Deadspin’s resident MLS hater Billy Haisley whom, judging solely by yesterday’s column attempt, has never stepped foot outside of the airport in Atlanta. Chalk another one up to southern sports stereotypes backed up by city assumptions that may or may not be true. (Yea, probably not true)

As sports fans in the south, we understand the rest of the country likes to stick their noses into our business on what it means to be a good fan. We’re the punching bag for the stereotypical debate on being “real” fans and I knew (as many others knew) that the MLS announcement would quickly bring it all forward to closeout April 2014. But sometimes you just read a piece and you want to reach through the screen and punch someone. So here we are because some of these “assumptions” need to be addressed if you are going to judge Atlanta, the bid for the MLS franchise, and our fans. Let’s use Billy’s column attempt as a guide…

The new team will play in the new Falcons stadium that should be finished in 2017. That doesn’t seem like a good plan, since the whole idea of requiring soccer-specific stadiums grew out of the various problems early MLS teams experienced in outsized and ill-suited NFL venues.

Yes, the MLS doesn’t want to play on football fields because it looks terrible and completely ruins the credibility of the league when you see this on television. But this doesn’t have anything to do with Atlanta and all Billy had to do was look into just this announcement press conference to put this stadium issue to rest. First, the new Falcons stadium had soccer in its plans from day 1 – this isn’t a football stadium that 10 years later they tried to retrofit to accommodate soccer. Just look at this beautiful thing:

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What about this plan looks outsized and ill-suited for soccer? The new stadium will be constructed with the technology to shift the seats and veil the upper bowls to create a more MLS specific venue. Pretty damn efficient. This configuration will accommodate under 30,000 fans which is still decently above the league attendance average (around 18,000) but well below the league high in Seattle (40K+). It’s a good sweet spot of big enough but with room to grow as the league does.

Second, Blank himself said this very clearly during the announcement, “There will never be an MLS game in Atlanta where NFL lines are shown on the field.” He gets it. So enough about the stadium.

As for the market, it cuts both ways. On the one hand, Atlanta is a big media market; on the other, it’s not immediately clear that pro soccer works in that part of the country. The two previous southern MLS franchises, the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny, lasted only a couple seasons before getting contracted.

“Not immediately clear” yet I am just going to kill it anyway because Miami and Tampa didn’t work out back in the late 90s before MLS was even much of a thing and only had 10 teams – because that’s totally comparable to now. (Miami meanwhile didn’t play anywhere near Miami but rather North Ft Lauderdale which is close to pretty much no one).

Anyway back to Atlanta, which currently has good, growing support for their NASL team, the Atlanta Silverbacks. The Silverbacks average around 4,500 which is healthy for the league and actually is 90% of their 5,000 seat venue. Furthermore their growing fanbase is a passionate one – so much so the supporter group Atlanta Ultras was recently suspended for 3 matches for undisclosed behaviors. It’s like a step away from being in Serie A!

Atlanta is a big, diverse city, but it doesn’t have the Latino population MLS usually targets.

Not only did the Hispanic population in Georgia double between the 2000 and 2010, but just last month the Georgia Dome hosted over 68,000 fans for a match between Mexico and Nigeria – the most fans for a soccer game in Atlanta history. “Atlanta is a great city,” Mexico coach Miguel Herrera said. “The record was broken. The stadium was full.”

This is a college sports territory that couldn’t sustain an NHL team and isn’t exactly crazy for its local MLB and NBA teams even though they’re usually pretty good. It’s not obvious that Atlanta is pining for yet another pro team to ignore.

First of all, how come no mention of the Falcons? Because they have been over the 95% capacity mark pretty damn consistently since the Uncle Arthur has been the man in charge (2002). I guess because they do well so Billy can’t mention them when trying to change/omit facts when forming an opinion first.

Isn’t crazy for the Braves? Don’t be fooled by the oversized former Olympic Stadium as the Braves are consistently in the top half of the league in attendance despite the stadium being built in a bad area with bad transportation options. Which is why, as mentioned, they are moving to another part of the city.

As far as those other two teams, that brings us to the dumpster fire shitshow known as Atlanta Spirit Group. ASG currently owns the Hawks and they did own the Thrashers – not that they really cared as Jeff Schultz wrote for the AJC is 2011: “They’ll tell you they care. They don’t. They’re walking away with a fat check. While you mourn the loss of a franchise, they’re waving goodbye with one middle finger. The NHL is leaving a city that never really was given a chance.”

Care to guess how many playoff games the Thrashers won in their history from 1999-2011? How about ZERO. They had one playoff appearance and got swept. That’s what Schultz means by a market that was never given a chance. (And in case you were curious, the Atlanta Flames who also left for Canada – won a whopping two total playoff games in their “storied” history from 1972-1980).

Meanwhile the Hawks have not won more than 1 playoff series in the same season since winning the NBA Championship in 1958. Under ASG the best they can claim is the “Joe Johnson Era.” Combining that with how they treated the Thrashers, how can anyone blame anyone else who wouldn’t want to give ASG a dime???

Not that Billy knows anything about any of this.

The final criterion for a new franchise is the local fanbase. This one again doesn’t look too promising.

Based on what? Your demographics statement based on nothing? Southern stereotypes based on no knowledge of the city, its people, or what the appetite for soccer may be?

In addition to the Silverbacks mentioned above, which had a sellout crowd on a rainy night just this past Saturday (see!…I was there!!) —

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—you should probably take note of a new supporters group known as Terminus Legion.  Terminus Legion is a new everything-Atlanta-soccer group that has already signed up over 500 paying members. This is before the MLS team even has a name and is still 3 years away from kicking a single ball as a franchise. The group has ambitions to be the largest supporter group in the country, and while that might be a tad far reaching, it already shows the commitment the city’s fans have to making sure the MLS works here.

He then goes through a bunch of other “assumptions” and “projections” about the talent pool – because apparently the world’s most popular and participated sport doesn’t have enough players to support just a couple of more teams in the United States. Yea…sure. More assumptions by a guy who made up his opinion and will just throw everything at the wall to justify it.

Great owner, a stadium built for soccer, a market craving another team that is actually well run, a growing and paying fanbase….yea I’d say Atlanta is pretty damn ready Billy. How about you visit someday?

Brad Epstein is a marketing manager for an agency located in Atlanta. You can follow him @BradMEpstein

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