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

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

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   2 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