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

MLS set to expand to Montreal

Major League Soccer isn’t giving any specifics, but there’s a press conference slated for Friday (we hear it’s in Montreal) for a “major announcement” (we hear it’s about expanding into Montreal for the 2012 season).

This is not unexpected news, nor is it a surprise that MLS commissioner Don Garber keeps saying Atlanta is on his mind for possible expansion some time down the road.

We’ve been hearing this, of course, since the inception of MLS in 1996. Atlanta has always been a market the league wants to capture, and the city is among those vying to make the final cut for the U.S. Soccer Federation’s 2018 or 2022 World Cup venue list. It’s one of the stronger candidates, in fact.

At some point, however, any discussion of MLS viability in Atlanta has to go beyond employing the usual buzzwords — like “market” — and touting all the ballyhooed numbers of youth players, various clusters of immigrant communities and the city’s history of staging big sporting events.

Atlanta also has to demonstrate that some kind of organic groundswell of a fan base exists to be worthy of having a franchise. It’s unlikely that anything like what has happened in Seattle will be replicated here, primarily because poorly-run (men’s) teams haven’t given Atlanta soccer fans much to cheer. Or, as the case is now, a team to cheer at all.

Seattle, Toronto and Vancouver — which like Montreal competed with Atlanta in the USL — have demonstrated outstanding turnout and organized, reliable team management.

To a certain degree, Montreal could provide something of a template for Atlanta since the Quebec city used big events as a springboard for the crowds the Impact have been drawing in recent years.

Somewhere, somehow, big-time soccer triggered fans to begin supporting the local team in big, lasting numbers.

Atlanta soccer boosters are hoping for the same, eyeing more big events, such as a post-World Cup friendly at the Georgia Dome between Club America and Manchester City.

In lieu of there not being a pro men’s team at all, there’s not a better option.

May 6, 2010   No Comments

A long view of American soccer

Longtime American soccer executive Peter Wilt (formerly Chicago Fire and Chicago Red Stars and now with the indoor Milwaukee Wave) projects the near-term landscape of the sport in the United States, and what it may look like in 2020.

My favorite (albeit tongue-in-cheek) scenario Wilt saves for last:

“American newspapers will all have soccer beat reporters writing regular features, columns and analysis….ok, just wanted to see if you were still paying attention.  This prediction of course is a joke, because we all know that there will be no daily newspapers in ten years.”

Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.

The bottom line is this: The sport’s in far better shape than the moaners claim. Wilt’s key insight — and one that should become obvious to anyone watching ESPN’s ubiquitous World Cup coverage this summer — is that:

“Media and society are mainstreaming soccer at unparalleled rates. Soccer bashing media members have been replaced with soccer knowledgeable journalists. American television and the internet have provided unprecedented forums for soccer coverage and discussion.”

This is probably the most dramatic development in American soccer in the 15 years since I first began covering the sport, and this will continue to proliferate even more rapidly in the coming years.

We’ve gone from soccer still being regarded in the mainstream as an exotic, “foreign” endeavor to one that’s getting nearly daily highlight play on “SportsCenter,” just to name one example.

(Although I don’t get why no American accents are allowed on ESPN’s World Cup announcing crews. To be sure, the Worldwide Leader is trying to impress others around the globe with its presence in South Africa, but this is a significant snub.)

As Wilt says, “the world is getting smaller.” For the growing, once-isolated world of American soccer, this is a very good thing.

May 5, 2010   1 Comment

Atlanta’s three amigos at MLS Cup

Three people I know are luxuriating right now in the all-soccer waters in Seattle, site of Sunday’s MLS Cup between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake, thanks to an all-expenses-paid promotion courtesy of various league sponsors.

Jason Longshore of Soccer in the Streets and Colin and Chris Martz, former colleagues at the Atlanta J-C and big-time soccerheads, have been Tweeting from the Supporters’ Summit, the Commissioners’ Gala and elsewhere.

If you want to keep up with their Tweets, here goes: @longshoe, @thrashboy, @thechrismartz, with the latter posting this a few euphoric hours ago:

“I want to come to #MLS Cup every year”

• The Atlantan who will be competing at Qwest Field — Conyers native Clint Mathis — will be vying for his first MLS championship. The RSL veteran played in this game exactly 10 years ago for the Galaxy, who fell to D.C. United.

• The current Galaxy feature Becks and Landon, whose mid-season rift appears to have healed rather nicely.

• More than 40,000 tickets have been sold in what’s quickly become North America’s spectator soccer hotbed. MLS gave the hosting nod to Seattle barely halfway into the Sounders’ inaugural season and likely will be coming back to the Pacific Northwest again and again.

• Here’s the hometown Seattle Times page devoted totally to MLS Cup.

• And for the first time, MLS Cup is on cable and in prime time, shifting from ABC to ESPN with an 8:30 p.m. EDT start.

November 22, 2009   No Comments

Atlanta . . . a nice city, but for MLS soccer?

When someone starts a blog post batting eyelashes and rattling off flattering and familiar things about your city, you know there’s a “but” coming.

And this “but,” posted recently on the Olé Olé blog, is about the prospects, however fleeting, of Major League Soccer in these parts. But — and here’s my “but” — the blogger’s rationale for why Atlanta shouldn’t be automatically regarded as the leading MLS market in the South is specious at best:

“Atlanta’s gravitational pull has been lessened by the rise of fellow Southern cities like Birmingham, Nashville, Raleigh, Memphis, and Atlanta’s second-city and biggest rival, Charlotte.”

Um, not to sound like a Chamber of Commerce harpie here, but only the Carolina markets (along with Miami) have been mentioned specifically by Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber in regards to possible MLS expansion, and that was only recently.

Despite the long-standing obstacles for an MLS presence in Atlanta — namely, the lack of an appropriate stadium — the city has always been on the league’s radar, from the very beginning. It continues to be uttered by Garber, who has been increasingly adamant that MLS eventually should locate in the Southeast.

I have nothing against any of those other cities, all of which I have enjoyed visiting, and in some ways prefer over Atlanta. Their smaller sizes and lower costs of living are very appealing. There’s a lot less pretentiousness, a more down-to-earth bonhomie. They’re not striving, almost laughably as Atlanta has for decades, to be an international city.

And some of them are very good pro sports towns, as good as Atlanta if not better. Falcons owner and prospective MLS investor Arthur Blank would give anything for the stadiums that the Tennessee Titans and Carolina Panthers play in. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers too.

But in spite of the serious efforts in those cities to attract big-time soccer — Nashville recently had a U.S. World Cup qualifier, and Birmingham has played host to the Yanks as well — Atlanta remains the most viable and enviable market for MLS in the Southeast (excluding Florida from this discussion). The size and variety of its population, its central location that draws fans from several surrounding states, its home as the headquarters of top corporations (potential and existing sponsors!), its airport and its track record as a good TV market for soccer are the most critical factors in Atlanta’s favor.

In other words, all the factors that our Charlotte-based blogging friend asserts has made Atlanta undeservedly feeling entitled to an MLS franchise.

However, that doesn’t really change the total picture that MLS puts together when assessing potential expansion cities. And let’s not get delusional about Chattanooga as a candidate. Yes, that city has turned out in good numbers for its NPSL team, and has an MLS-specific stadium already standing. If only someone in Atlanta had had such foresight . . .

But like Rochester, Chattanooga is simply far too small as a market for MLS. And there’s got to be a deep-pocketed Daddy Warbucks waiting to finance a franchise. Until Blank submitted (and later withdrew) an MLS bid last winter, Atlanta was in the same boat.

MLS is expanding into cities that are already soccer hotbeds, such as Seattle, Portland and Vancouver in the Pacific Northwest. Toronto had horrendous crowds during its United Soccer Leagues years, but with a diverse cosmopolitan population, it now has some of the most passionate fans in MLS.

Even if Blank ponies up, gets a stadium built and offers Atlanta for MLS consideration, remember that this city is not a particularly good sports town, haunted by fair-weather fans during the glory years of the Braves. MLS is rightly concerned about attendance and doesn’t want to risk locating in a city that isn’t going to support a team.

So while Atlanta maintains quite a few advantages over its Southeastern rivals, it’s got to do more than provide a place to play. Convincing MLS that there’s a big enough, passionate enough fan base that will keep turning out might be the hardest obstacle of all.

August 4, 2009   4 Comments

Hate to trash your soccer summer, but . . .

Despite the recent euphoria from soccer’s boosters, bloggers, executives and others, how much progress has the sport really made in the public imagination in this ballyhooed “Summer of Soccer?”

Not much, according to Jonathan Zopf of the Gainesville Times, who speaks to soccer aficionadoes local and beyond in painting a gloomier picture than what’s been touted elsewhere.

Indeed, to most Americans, soccer remains “a beautiful bore,” and National Soccer Hall of Fame historian Roger Allaway sums it up thusly:

“People talk about ‘have we turned the corner.’ In my mind, there is no corner; it’s a curve and we keep going further around it.”

Zopf examines the American player development system — youth associations organized unlike anywhere else in the world — as a source of the problem, and this is not a new suggestion.

Neither is the problem of getting Americans to watch their own domestic leagues when the most glamorous club teams and national teams are criss-crossing our shores. Says Woodstock soccer fan Travis Dexter:

“I don’t even watch the MLS and I live in this country. I’d rather watch the overseas clubs. Soccer is never going to grow where we watch the MLS.”

There are other critics of the “Summer of Soccer” meme as well.

And here’s a sobering fact about the Rose Bowl throng of 93,137 that watched Barcelona defeat the Los Angeles Galaxy 2-1 in a friendly on Friday night: Not only is it the biggest soccer crowd in America since the 1994 World Cup, it also had more far more people watching than the other six MLS weekend games combined.

Would a greater eye toward style help?

August 3, 2009   2 Comments

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

If they expand MLS, who will be watching?

Kartik Krishnayir at Major League Soccer Talk is doubtful that more Major League Soccer expansion will help the league’s ailing television numbers, unless it includes a second franchise in the New York City area.

But that’s not happening, at least for now, as Mets owner Fred Wilpon, who’s been interested in bringing MLS to Queens, is in no shape to follow through. He got taken to the cleaners by Bernie Madoff.

Krishnayir doesn’t mention television possibilities for another potential MLS expansion city uttered last week by commissioner.

But Atlanta was one of the top markets in the country tuning into the finals of the Confederations Cup, for whatever that’s worth.

July 21, 2009   No Comments

Some MLS fans to Atlanta: Go away, please

MLS Rumors asks readers for their thoughts about commissioner Don Garber’s statement last week regarding future expansion possibilities that include Atlanta.

As noted on Atlanta Soccer News on Friday, Garber specifically mentioned Atlanta as one of five potential markets for what appear to be two expansion slots, perhaps as early as 2012. The others: Montreal, the Carolinas, Miami and St. Louis.

But check out some of the comments on Atlanta’s inclusion in the mix. They’re not impressed, to say the least:

Anyone but Atlanta.

Atlanta, no way, just forget it now please.

Etc., etc.

July 20, 2009   1 Comment

Atlanta mentioned in MLS expansion plans

Atlanta is one of several markets in the mix for the next round of Major League Soccer expansion, the Sports Business Daily reported Friday.

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank submitted an expansion bid for the 2011 season but withdrew it earlier this year. The Falcons were involved in marketing and promotional efforts for last month’s friendly at the Georgia Dome between Mexico and Venezuela that drew more than 50,000 spectators in the first soccer match at the 14-year-old indoor facility.

Later on Friday, the New York Post quoted MLS commissioner Don Garber as saying he’s not concerned about watering down the quality of MLS, which currently has 15 teams and will grow to 18 by the start of the 2011 season. Geographic considerations appear to play a prominent role in expansion decisions:

“We’re not south of Washington, D.C. Markets like Atlanta, Carolina, Florida, we have to figure out how we capture another 50 million people in this country. . . .

“But you get east into the Midwest, we’re feeling a little weak there. We need a team in St. Louis, and we’re trying to figure out how to make that work.”

No firm timetable has been set for the next round of expansion, though it could come as early as 2013. MLS officials are scheduled to begin making more precise plans during the forthcoming All-Star break.

Jim Smith, the Falcons vice president for marketing, formerly was general manager of the Columbus Crew of MLS. That connection, as well as Atlanta’s long-held viability as a future market for the league, has kept the city on the MLS radar.

“We know Jim so well and that he knows that market,” Dan Courtemanche, the MLS vice president for communications, told Atlanta Soccer News after the June 24 match at the Dome. League and Falcons officials met during that week to further discuss expansion. “What we have now is an ongoing dialogue.

Atlanta Soccer News has contacted Falcons executives seeking comment on MLS expansion, but they have not responded.

MLS expanded into Seattle this season, will add Philadelphia to the fold next year and welcomes Vancouver and Portland in 2011.

Those three cities in the Pacific Northwest have been part of the second division United Soccer Leagues, where the Atlanta Silverbacks played until the franchise withdrew from competition for the 2009 season, citing the economy. Montreal also currently is playing in the USL, but owner Joey Saputo this spring made a personal visit to New York to meet with Garber about MLS expansion.

Courtemanche explained that for a city to be seriously considered for expansion, it must meet three criteria: it is regarded as an “international” city; it has a viable ownership group; and that it is a “passionate soccer market.”

The turnout at the first soccer match at the Georgia Dome made a good impression, but Courtemanche cautioned it was a “one-off event . . . It’s an opportunity for us to put our toe into this market.”

The city will play host to another international friendly on Wednesday at the Georgia Dome when AC Milan of Italy and Mexico’s Club América meet in the World Football Challenge. That match will be shown live on ESPN2.

MLS has been interested in returning the Southeast after franchises in Miami and Tampa Bay folded in 2002. In Birmingham, the mayor said plans for a new domed stadium could boost its MLS aspirations. But Atlanta and St. Louis, among other cities passed over previously, are likely to be considered ahead of new bidders.

The possibility of MLS in Atlanta may depend on Blank’s ability to get a new Falcons stadium he has long desired. The city’s formal venue proposal for the 2018 or 2022 World Cup will include information on both the Georgia Dome and a potential new Falcons facility. That proposal is due to the U.S. Soccer Federation July 29.

Earlier this week Blank sold minority stakes in the Falcons to four individual investors, but he still retains 90 percent of the franchise.

July 17, 2009   10 Comments