Soccer and the Falcons stadium proposal
Arthur Blank’s stated preference for a downtown outdoor stadium for the Atlanta Falcons — without a retractable roof that he says is too costly — is catching some flak for more than just that reason, and not just from the folks at the Georgia Dome who risk losing their primary tenant.
As my former AJC colleague Tony Barnhart wrote this morning, without a weather-proof venue, Atlanta risks losing a lot of events that have become a vibrant part of the city’s sports scene.
The Falcons owner and team president Rich McKay point out that an outdoor facility with natural grass is optimal for soccer, and it should be heartening to the Atlanta soccer community that the Falcons’ soccer interest remains strong.
Blank is harboring long-range hopes of landing a Major League Soccer franchise, dependent on a new facility for his NFL team that he has wanted for years. And MLS commissioner Don Garber recently reiterated the league’s desire to have Atlanta on board.
A new Falcons stadium also has been included in the Atlanta venue component as part of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s World Cup bid submitted to FIFA last week, with the Dome as the ready-to-go option.
The Atlanta stadium tussle figures go on for some time, beyond the December deadline for FIFA’s decisions on selecting host nations for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, minus final venue choices.
The threat of not getting an MLS team is the greater concern. Atlanta possesses one of the two critical factors the league has required for expansion or relocation: A committed ownership group.
The other is a proper place to play. If Blank’s dream stadium doesn’t come true, then men’s professional soccer in Atlanta will be the biggest casualty. The Falcons likely would remain at the Dome, along with the SEC Championship game, Final Fours, ACC and SEC basketball tournaments and other events that occasionally are staged there.
Blank has prided himself on making the Falcons organization a positive and influential corporate and sporting citizen, and to a large degree that has happened. The Falcons are no longer a laughingstock, either on the field or in the community. That they’re upfront about their interest in soccer is a boon that the sport in this city hasn’t enjoyed in decades.
But his announcement this week also underscores the tensions that have existed for some time over the promotion of college and professional sports in Atlanta. Soccer could be caught in the squeeze if those differences aren’t resolved about a new Falcons stadium.
Gary Stokan, who leads the Atlanta World Cup bid group and is a former soccer marketer for Adidas, departed earlier this year as executive director of the Atlanta Sports Council and now presides over the Chick-fil-A Bowl, which was spun off from the ASC. He also is the chief operating officer for the College Football Hall of Fame that will be relocating to Atlanta from South Bend, Ind.
A sinister mind might wonder if Blank’s aversion to a retractable roof isn’t just about the costs. If all, or even some, of those events did leave Atlanta, the sports offerings in Atlanta would be reduced, especially during the fall football season. There would be less competition for the Falcons for the attention (and dollars) of Atlanta sports fans not fanatically tethered to the exploits of UGA, Georgia Tech, or other college teams, etc., etc.
Admittedly, that’s an Oliver Stone scenario. The Braves, who play in summer, have been outspokenly in favor of having pro sports promoted better. They don’t have any serious competitive threats to their season, since both the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream and the revived Atlanta Beat of Women’s Professional Soccer are in very small niches. An MLS team would be in a bigger niche.
In 1997, after the Braves moved to Turner Field, a local soccer group that included Phil Woosnam felt extremely chastened as it fought vainly to preserve Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium as a soccer venue.
The old home of the Braves was absolutely going to be razed, but there were suspicions that the Braves, and Robert Dale Morgan, Stokan’s predecessor at the ASC, were either hostile to a bigger soccer imprint in Atlanta or at least indifferent to it.
An outdoor stadium built for the Falcons would mean not only keeping the possibility of MLS alive, but also having it stage friendlies such as those last year and this coming summer at the Dome, World Cup qualifying and other big-time soccer events.
Atlanta could finally become a major soccer city and shed its notorious fragmentation in that sport. There’s time to make something work with or without the World Cup coming here, but right now the larger Atlanta sports community appears to be very divided.