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

Georgia Dome soccer a financial bonanza

Hispanic Market Weekly has an interesting numbers breakdown of last week’s friendly between Mexico and Venezuela, estimating that Soccer United Marketing reeled in around $2.5 million in ticket sales from the first soccer match played at the Georgia Dome.

Local Latino business owners and media entrepreneurs are also buzzing:

“It opened the eyes for this city on how powerful and vast the Hispanic market in Atlanta is.”

My friend David Tulis, who photographed the game for SUM, has offered up a couple of videos from that event. First, a nifty collection of fans and a cool soundtrack:

And he also put together a fun time-lapse video of the Dome preparations, from the laying of the sod four days before the match to rolling it up and out. Rinse and repeat to follow in late July for Club América and AC Milan:

June 29, 2009   No Comments

‘Happiness’ abounds for Team Mexico, fans

The Georgia Dome’s soccer debut certainly made Atlanta sports officials happy. The announced attendance of 51,115 also made Soccer United Marketing, which organized the event, very, very happy.

Most of the fans who attended the game, overwhelmingly donning Mexico’s Tricolor of green, white and red were extremely happy as they made their way from all around the metro Atlanta area, Georgia and the Southeast.

Several dozen surrounded the Mexico team bus outside the Omni hotel, cheering, snapping photos and incessantly blowing those annoying vuvuzela horns.

(And for those of you complaining about hearing such a racket on your television during the Confederations Cup, try getting an earful of those blasters inside a domed stadium.)

The Jose Cuervo shooter girls at the Futbol Fiesta before Wednesday's match inside the Georgia Dome. (photo by David Tulis)

The Jose Cuervo shooter girls at the Futbol Fiesta before Wednesday's match inside the Georgia Dome. (photo by David Tulis)

At the pregame Fútbol Fiesta, a monument to blatant, overbearing corporate sponsorship, at least a few young couples enjoyed dancing at the Jose Cuervo tent. If that doesn’t make you happy, what will?

And the Mexican national team, testing some young talent with a colossal summer schedule awaiting, might have been the happiest of all after a 4-0 throttling of Venezuela.

“I expected less people, but they deserved the win,” said Mexico striker Carlos Vela, who scored the first goal of the game. “It was great bringing happiness to them.”

Wednesday’s extravaganza at the Dome went off without a hitch — unless you were among the rare souls sporting Venezuela’s burgundy colors. The specially imported real grass was smooth and playable, especially for the young, dashing Mexican club struggling to gain top playing form. The crowd was well-behaved and organized, basking in the communal experience of celebrating Mexican nationality and heritage. The post-game traffic was a nightmare, but expected.

The immediate verdict — Atlanta is now on the map as a spectator soccer destination — is hard to counter. An untapped market in a part of the world that big-time soccer spectacle has long bypassed figures to get increased consideration for future events.

Mexico's Giovano dos Santos (17) scored twice at the Georgia Dome. (photo by David Tulis)

Mexico's Giovano dos Santos (left) scored twice against Venezuela as the man of the first soccer match at the Georgia Dome. (photo by David Tulis)

“You’ll see more of this on a regular basis,” said Atlanta Sports Council president Gary Stokan. “This has a good vibe to it. There’s a pent-up demand for this. I’ve got to give SUM and MLS credit for looking at the future of the [Mexican-American] demographic.”

Even more ecstatic are members of the Latino community who have long awaited a game like this to come to the city.

“I’ve been here 25 years and this is the biggest event for Spanish-speaking people that I’ve ever seen,” said Will Ramirez, director of Estadio Sports, an Atlanta Spanish-language sports media outlet that covers primarily soccer, including many of the metro areas dozens of Hispanic soccer leagues. “They are very happy because this is the first time there has been something like this in this city.”

But Ramirez said that while the Mexican bonanza is nice, next month’s friendly between Club América, and AC Milan, the two most popular club teams in Mexico and Italy, respectively, could draw a more diverse crowd. And a bigger one.

Even the youngest Mexico fans made no doubt of their loyalties. (photo by David Tulis)

Even the youngest Mexico fans made no doubt of their loyalties. (photo by David Tulis)

“For as many people as there were here tonight,” he said Wednesday, “there will be more then. You will have Mexican and Latino fans. You will have European and African fans.”

Although AC Milan no longer has Brazilian star Kaká, sold earlier this summer to Real Madrid, it still has a star-studded roster that includes Ronaldinho and stars of Italy’s 2006 World Cup championship team.

The Rossoneri, as AC Milan are called, may not field those all of those players in Atlanta, since the match is during a preseason tour of the United States.

So it might be hard to match the happiness factor that erupted around town this week.

“This is my first trip to Atlanta,” Mexico coach Javier Aguirre said. “And I leave very happy.”

Here are some extensive video highlights of the match from Telemundo, where famed announcer Andrés Cantor also was happy calling mucho goles:

June 25, 2009   2 Comments

Some appetizers for a big soccer day in Atlanta

Thought I’d pass along some great reads from the world of soccer in the hours leading up to today’s U.S. vs. Spain match in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup and Atlanta’s first international match tonight at the Georgia Dome between Mexico and Venezuela. I’ve tried to find links that have some resonance with the soccer scene in Atlanta, or some other connection to the city, but I don’t want to get too provincial here either:

• John Turnbull is an Atlanta soccer writer, book editor and creator of The Global Game site, a fabulous compendium of stories about the culture of soccer around the world. He’s been in South Africa for the Confederations Cup and here writes about how preparations for next year’s World Cup are resonating through that society:

“Officials do not duck the paradox that affluence and tin-shack construction exist in proximity. Highway reconstruction from the Cape Town airport to downtown draws close to squatters’ settlements in plain view. “That is the reality of South Africa,” says the coordinator of World Cup preparations in Western Cape province, Laurine Platzky. She mentions forced migrations during apartheid and South Africa’s attraction to asylum seekers. She rejects that the shacks somehow be hidden from view. Yet earlier this month the Constitutional Court approved an order evicting 20,000 residents of the Joe Slovo settlement, what one of the advocates for the settlers, Sandra Liebenberg, calls the largest sanctioned eviction since apartheid.”

• We’ve entered a long, hot soccer summer in North America, with the prominent club and national teams of Latin America and Europe headed for these shores. Mentioned are the Mexican tour and the World Football Challenge series that includes a July 22 match at the Georgia Dome between Club América and AC Milan. While some MLS fans complain that their league is getting overshadowed, MLS commissioner Don Garber says it’s part of continuing to establish a culture of spectator soccer in North America:

“There was a time when folks in this country were afraid of international soccer. They saw it as competition. We look at it as an aspirational position we should achieve at some point. . . . We can either hide from it or embrace it.”

• American soccer blogging superstar du Nord sits down with Peter Wilt, CEO of the Chicago Red Stars of Women’s Professional Soccer and formerly the GM of the MLS Chicago Fire. This is Wilt’s foray into management of the women’s game, and he makes a shrewd observation that new Atlanta Beat owner Fitz Johnson and his cohorts would do well to keep in mind. The WUSA did engage in girl power and some social advocacy, but not to the degree that is seen in women’s basketball. WPS has to avoid falling into that trap if it wants to successfully market itself beyond its base of young girls and their families:

“I think in women’s soccer there’s a sense that it should be promoted as a cause, a social cause for women’s rights. Girl Power. That was never the case with MLS or men’s soccer. WPS in general, and Chicago in particular, made a point of saying no, this is about entertainment. This is a great athletic sport. It’s absolutely a good thing for women and a good thing for girls. But we really believe that the product as a sport, as entertainment, is worthy of your investment.”

• And finally, the U.S. Soccer site has named Atlanta’s Brewhouse Café as its June bar of the month. That’s been my soccer oasis in Atlanta for many years, and I just may head down there this afternoon to catch the Confederations Cup before going over to the Dome.

What a great day of soccer in Atlanta beyond!

June 24, 2009   2 Comments

A new Dome away from home for Mexico

The electronic signboards were flashing their messages in Spanish halfway around the field at the Georgia Dome Tuesday morning as the Venezuelan national team departed, making way for Mexico’s El Tricolor.

Jun 23 2009 - VID00061_1

Mexico's Giovani dos Santos meets the press at the Georgia Dome.

That would be the real grass field at the Georgia Dome, laid down Saturday for tomorrow night’s friendly between the two nations, in what will be the first competitive soccer contest in the home of the Falcons.

Aside from the red and black seat and remaining Falcons logos, there’s little other indication that the Dome hasn’t been completely taken over by the Mexican soccer federation and the corporate sponsors — four of them based in Atlanta — who are financing this summer’s five-city American national team tour.

Because the Mexican team prefers to play on grass, Soccer United Marketing, the Major League Soccer-affiliated group putting on the tour, is paying an estimated $100,000 for the real sod, which will be pulled up after the game and donated to local organizations.

More than two dozen media representatives gathered Tuesday, and while Venezuelan players were made available for interviews, most of the press snapped photos, shot video, turned on microphones and jotted down notes while talking to Mexican players and coach Javier Aguirre, who conducted a press conference almost entirely in Spanish.

And Aguirre, who recently took the reins of El Tricolor after a slow start to World Cup qualifying, was questioned rather vigorously, and repeatedly, about Mexico’s chances of getting to South Africa next summer.

Awaiting media members at the accreditation table was a glossy 22-page program, “La Ola Verde,” featuring the Mexican team. There was no similar information for Venezuela, a baseball-happy nation that’s the only member of CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, never to have reached the World Cup.

As Atlantans are about to find out — and what many cities across the U.S. have known for some time — when El Tri comes to town, it’s always the home team.

The Sports Business Journal declared the Mexican squad the most marketable soccer property in the United States, ahead of the U.S. national team that has had El Tri’s number on the field in recent years, and ahead of all of the 15 Major League Soccer teams that are currently in mid-season. Attendances, television ratings and corporate interest back up that assertion, and since the Mexican tour began in 2004 new territories are being explored.

Such as Atlanta, with its vibrant Mexican-American community. SUM’s ticketing and promotional efforts have been concentrated along an Atlanta-Birmingham-Charlotte line, but the entire region is expected to be part of the draw that could attract more than 50,000 spectators Wednesday.

“The Southeast area is one that we’ve been looking at for a long time,” said SUM spokeswoman Marisabel Muñoz. “It has been on the commissioner’s radar.”

That would be MLS commissioner Don Garber, who may be in town for the game to discuss long-term MLS expansion possibilities in Atlanta with representatives of Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who briefly bid for an expansion franchise earlier this year before withdrawing.

Muñoz said the Mexican team played in Seattle last summer when organizers were skeptical about the turnout, but more than 56,000 attended. Now in its first season in MLS, Seattle’s become a soccer hotbed in North America. So has Houston, where the Mexican team played before the MLS Dynamo relocated from San Jose.

Part of El Tri’s visit to American cities include player and team appearances around game dates. Since Sunday, individual Mexican players, past and present, have been featured at places such as Home Depot and AT & T retail stores — they’re among the Atlanta corporate sponsors — from Gainesville  down to Gwinnett and North DeKalb. Signing autographs, appearing with fans in photos and other promotional work are part of a busy summer that coincides with a break in the Mexican domestic league seasons.

There also was a team event at the World of Coca-Cola — another corporate sponsor. On Wednesday, an interactive “Fútbol Fiesta” fan zone will open in the Dome’s orange parking lot at 3:3o pm.

The Mexican team heads off to San Diego for a match against Guatemala over the weekend, and will remain in the States to participate in the Gold Cup, which is the continental tournament of the CONCACAF region. It’s an event Mexican players are adamant about winning. After that, there’s “August 12,” as Aguirre put it, referring to the date of the U.S.-Mexico rematch in Mexico City’s imposing Estadio Azteca, where El Tri has never lost to its rival.

Georgia Dome officials are used to playing host to big events, but spokeswoman Ashley Boatman said the only different aspect of preparing for this game is the installation of the grass.

“On an international level, it equates to a Super Bowl or a Final Four,” she said. “For fans of soccer, an event like this is a major event.”

June 23, 2009   1 Comment

Atlanta joins America’s ‘summer of soccer’

For most of the last century, European club teams have been spending part of their off-seasons in North America, earning extra income, getting players into shape and enjoying a respite from intensified media and public attention that often overwhelms at home.

So when Major League Soccer announced this week the coming months would be the “most prolific Summer of Soccer ever,” this claim needs to be taken with a few historical grains of salt. And it deserves a bit of an explanation.

Surely MLS isn’t exaggerating one thing: In terms of marketing and promoting the presence of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea, AC Milan, the Mexican national team, etc., this is an unprecedented slate of highly coordinated events that illustrate a growing demand for high-profile spectator soccer in this country and Canada. A total of 101 games, starting today with the SuperLiga series between MLS and the Mexican Primera, will be played over the next 51 days.

Soccer United Marketing, an arm of Major League Soccer, is putting on Wednesday’s international friendly at the Georgia Dome between Mexico and Venezuela. Such legends of El Tricolor as Luis Hernandez, Carlos Hermosillo and Alberto Garcia Aspe will be in town before then to make appearances in various pockets of metro Atlanta’s sizable Mexican-American community.

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Is Atlanta ready for some fútbol?

The Georgia State Soccer Association, which helping promote the game, announced on Friday that tickets for upper level seating at the Dome have gone on sale. More than 30,000 tickets, comprising the lower bowl, have already been sold. On Saturday, real grass was laid down at the Georgia Dome.

Next month, that same demographic is the obvious target of a club friendly, also at the Dome, between Mexico’s Club América and AC Milan. This is clearly the biggest ethnic soccer market in Atlanta, as it is in many U.S. cities, and turnout for these games will go a long way toward determining Atlanta’s viability as a destination for future spectator soccer events.

The timing of these two games couldn’t be more important for Atlanta’s bid to become a potential World Cup venue. The U.S. Soccer Federation, which is bidding for either the 2018 or 2022 World Cup, has put the Dome on its list of 45 venues in 37 cities for consideration and is requesting more detailed proposals to meet FIFA hosting specifications.

Atlanta Sports Council president Gary Stokan told me this week his group has little more than a month — July 29 — to provide that information and sharpen its pitch. That’s the sort of thing Atlanta’s been known for in bringing major sporting events to Atlanta — the Summer Olympics, Super Bowl, Final Four, SEC and ACC championships, etc. Stokan, who worked for Adidas during the days of the North American Soccer League, has for quite a while wanted to add soccer to the city’s inventory of big events. In a sense, it’s the final missing link.

But the World Cup — this is pretty heady stuff. It’s a different international animal than the Olympics, which depends on the largesse of both the American media establishment and corporate sponsorship. FIFA certainly depends on the latter, but its political culture is hardly dependent on the American way of doing things. To illustrate that, FIFA boss Sepp Blatter this week urged MLS to consider switching its seasons from the summer if it wants to attract the “next Beckham” to these shores.

Setting aside the fact that the Beckham experiment has been a dismal failure, that one of the top professional leagues in North America gets a public upbraiding like that from the most powerful man in the sport shouldn’t sit well with American soccer organizers and marketers. MLS commissioner Don Garber couldn’t really offer much of a response except to talk about new soccer-specific stadiums being constructed.

Blatter’s hot air, as usual, is nonsensical and misplaced when it comes to assessing the reality of the game on this continent. He understands fully the limited salary structure of MLS that pales in comparison to, say, Kaká’s transfer fee to Real Madrid. But that’s a topic for another time.

The fact that Atlanta has been added to the “Summer of Soccer” tour is the first phase in putting the city on America’s soccer map. That’s no small accomplishment in a city where spectator sports in general, much less soccer, have a history of inconsistent support.

Garber will be in town this week to talk about MLS expansion in the wake of a recent bid by Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank. He abandoned that bid, but his vice president of marketing, Jim Smith, is a former general manager of the MLS Columbus Crew. There now is a resident point man here well-versed in the league and who is learning this sports market and what might be possible.

So for the first time, major players in Atlanta’s sports scene are interested in MLS, even though having a team here is a long-term prospect at the very least. But in a city currently without any professional soccer, Atlanta is at last taking some baby steps toward becoming a serious soccer destination.

June 20, 2009   1 Comment

Mexico-Venezuela Atlanta match nearing 30k ticket mark

The first international soccer match at the Georgia Dome may not fill the indoor arena, but it should provide the setting for an electric atmosphere.

Soccer United Marketing, which is promoting a U.S. tour of the Mexican national team, reported on Wednesday that nearly 30,000 tickets have been sold for next Wednesday’s (June 24) friendly between Mexico and Venezuela.

The game is less than a week away, but a full slate of promotional events, including an appearance by El Tricolor legends Luis Hernandez, Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Manuel Negrete is on tap this weekend, when real grass will be laid down in the Dome for the first time.

The timing of the Mexico-Venezuela match also is important for organizers of Atlanta’s World Cup venue bid, who were notified this week by the U.S. Soccer Federation that the Dome had made the first cut of potential sites to be considered should the U.S. get either the 2018 or 2022 event.

June 18, 2009   No Comments