The World's Game In The Heart of the Sun Belt

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.

May 20, 2010   1 Comment

Fans wanting MLS in Atlanta keep the faith

They’ve got the makings of a Web site and a Facebook page that’s up and running, with nearly 200 fellow travelers having signed up thus far. If you want to pledge allegiance to their cause, you can even buy a T-shirt (right, below) that leaves little doubt as to what you want. And by all means, don’t hesitate to Tweet them up.

Just be prepared to wait a while for your dreams to come true.

Getting all shirty over MLS in Atlanta.

Getting all shirty over MLS in Atlanta.

Despite the euphoria over two well-attended matches at the Georgia Dome this summer and Atlanta’s bid as a potential World Cup venue, the city remains an elusive blip on the radar of Major League Soccer, as it has for most of the league’s 13-year history.

After withdrawing his bid for a Major League Soccer franchise in December, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank has placed any future aspirations to apply again in a holding pattern due to the sour economy. But a fledgling band of fans is forging ahead anyway, drumming up grassroots support for what they hope will be an eventual MLS presence in Atlanta.

They call themselves B.O.S.S. — the Brotherhood of Southern Soccer. They’ve fashioned their efforts after a fan group in Philadelphia, Sons of Ben, which launched an MLS crusade a few years ago. The honorific is for Ben Franklin, and next year those SoBs — that really is how they call themselves – will have a team to cheer for, as the Philadelphia Union joins MLS as an expansion franchise.

A number of B.O.S.S. aficionadoes Tweeted and took pictures from the Dome last week, proclaiming the city ready for big-time soccer on a regular basis:

“Official attendance at Georgia Dome: 50,306. In Atlanta. On a Wednesday night. In late July. Who says the south can’t support soccer??”

One of the driving forces behind B.O.S.S. believes the Dome exhibitions were exactly what Atlanta needed to make its case.

“We’ve never had the chance to show the rest of the country what was there, what the potential has been in Atlanta,” said Will Clearman, a former Woodstock High and Mercer University soccer player, who is now a naval engineer in Washington, D.C. “We never had a place to play big international games until now. Now there’s a serious chance of something happening.”

Soccer fans from all over the Southeast turned out to see Mexico. Would they do the same for an MLS team? (photo by David Tulis)

Soccer fans from all over the Southeast turned out to see Mexico. Would they do the same for an MLS team? (photo by David Tulis)

At least the prospects for MLS are stronger than they’ve been, especially with local ownership interest having surfaced. But significant roadblocks remain, even though the league has always had Atlanta in mind.

“MLS would like to have a presence in the Southeast and Atlanta is a large international city that is headquarters to major global corporations such as Coca-Cola and The Home Depot,” MLS vice president of communications Dan Courtemanche replied in an e-mail. “We also believe Atlanta is a strong soccer market and think an MLS team would appeal to the growing international population in Georgia.”

But . . . and the same “but” still applies:

“Atlanta’s biggest challenge for landing a future expansion team is that it currently does not have an appropriate venue for an MLS team,” Courtemanche added.

In 2000 there was a local effort to create something called the Atlanta Soccer Village, with an MLS-specific stadium as its centerpiece. But that idea never went anywhere. Neither did a last-ditch effort to save the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for soccer use. The Atlanta Silverbacks, who have suspended participation in the United Soccer Leagues (a notch below MLS), several years ago built the shell of what might have been an MLS-standard stadium near the 285/85 intersection. But the location and lack of parking are among its drawbacks, and the future of that organization is uncertain.

So here we go again.

The facility issue could be solved if Blank ever builds a new Falcons stadium that he has envisioned as a public/private collaboration, with the most likely site at the former General Motors plant in Doraville.

That’s a very big “if” because the recession that Blank cited for scotching his initial application to MLS looms even larger now, especially with pace of the recovery in question.

“What it boils down to is the economic environment at this time,” said Kim Shreckengost, the executive vice president and chief of staff of AMB Group LLC, the parent company of the Falcons. “It’s not appropriate for us to pursue that now.”

Plenty of obstacles remain for MLS to come to Atlanta. (photo by David Tulis)

Plenty of obstacles remain for MLS to come to Atlanta. (photo by David Tulis)

The MLS bid grew out of what Shreckengost said was a result of long-term strategic planning several years ago as AMB was “looking at growth opportunities” both in the sports realm and for further civic engagement.

Even after Blank withdrew his MLS bid, the Falcons organization helped promote both matches at the Dome, and it is represented on Atlanta’s World Cup bid committee. But Shreckengost said she could not indicate definitively when Blank may make another MLS bid: “I can’t until there is a clearer [economic] picture.”

MLS, which is in the process of adding four teams to grow to 18 by the start of the 2011 season, hasn’t stipulated when, and how many, teams might follow after that. There has been some speculation that the league could grow to 20 teams by 2012 or 2013. The owner of the USL’s Montreal Impact has been indicating publicly that his team will be admitted to MLS.

Watching from afar is Clearman, whose fan days here go back to attending Ruckus games in the mid-1990s and who remains convinced that Atlanta is an MLS-worthy market. He cites the packed crowds that frequently watch English and international matches at soccer watering holes like the Brewhouse Café in Little Five Points. Even as a Georgia Tech graduate student, he’d get up early on the weekends to get a good seat.

But does that signify enough interest in MLS?

“That’s how some people used to talk about Toronto, that those people were nothing but Eurosnobs,” Clearman responded.

The Canadian city that also drew paltry crowds for its former USL team is now an MLS hotbed, with Toronto FC games at its 20,000-seat home venue frequently sold out. “If that can happen there, I think it can happen in Atlanta too.”

However another MLS bid might proceed, Clearman advises those striving to bring a team to Atlanta to work closely with its fan base.

“If they’re serious, then there’s a lot they can gain from the people who support them.”

July 29, 2009   3 Comments