|Georgia Dome hosts Soccer|
(Courtesy of bleacherreport.com)
I'm not sure why I'm on a MLS Expansion kick recently. Maybe it's the fact that MLS will likely go another season without adding a new franchise, instead opting for 2014 for a start of NY2 or other. Maybe it is the fact that MLS franchises are the new "in" phrase to mention when it comes to gaining public support for new stadium projects. Such is the case in Minnesota with the Vikings new stadium deal which we covered in an article earlier this week. Although that deal doesn't appear to edge out Orlando for the next post-NY2 MLS spot, another development a little closer to home might.
Last Friday an op-ed piece from Atlanta Falcons President and CEO, Richard McKay, was published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that went mostly unnoticed the people outside of Georgia. In the article, McKay appeals to the public for support of a new retractable-roof stadium for the Falcons to replace the Georgia Dome in the next five to ten years. The current facility will have its bonds paid off in the next few years at which time the Falcons lease with the stadium ends and potentially, the team could relocate, which is doubtful. While this is all well and good, the one part of the article that caught our attention was the mention of bringing a MLS franchise to the new stadium if constructed.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank, by some accounts, virtual had the 20th MLS expansion team slot locked up in 2010/11 with his bid to bring a team to downtown Atlanta. However, the sticking point continued to be Blank wanting the team to play in the Georgia Dome and Don Garber wanting the team to have its own stadium. Eventually Blank withdrew his bid for a franchise and has been fairly quiet on the matter since.
Behind Miami, Atlanta is the 2nd largest market in the nation without a MLS franchise, and almost every plan for the league to return to the Southeast involves Atlanta as one of the teams. The Atlanta Silverbacks of the NASL currently play 20 minutes outside of town, though they still claim an "Atlanta" street address. The Silverbacks stadium is located on a tight piece of property between a major interstate overpass and a dense residential neighborhood. The team draws under 3,000 fans on average per match, so the support is either lacking because of location or performance or both.
A lot of people would look at the retractable-stadium deal in Minnesota and the one mentioned for Atlanta as an apples-to-apples comparison of potential MLS host stadiums. Not so fast my friends. Where an MLS team could play in either stadium, MLS would likely be more willing to accept a retractable-roof stadium in Atlanta for a very simple reason; heat. For much the same reason why Turner Field (home of the Atlanta Braves) average under 60% capacity for most of its games, the summers in the southeast tough to bear even at night. MLS doesn't want to have a Gillette situation where a 70,000 seat stadium sits covered in tarps except for a small section of the lower bowl, but even they realize an outside park might be a disaster.
The last issue facing Atlanta in its bid for an MLS franchise would be fan support. Although not always the case, and definitely not at the college level, Atlanta is getting the reputation of being a lousy sports town. It's not just because the NHL's Thrashers moved to Winnipeg last season, it's the fact that attendance isn't as high for sporting events as you would think for the 9th largest metropolitan area in the country. 15th, 15th, and 23rd, are the rankings in attendance for MLB, NFL, and NBA for Atlanta teams last season, respectively.
MLS will return to the southeast in the next few years, and although Atlanta will eventually get a team, they do not appear to be the front-runner at this point. But as we have seen over the last several years, the topic of MLS expansion is very fluid and always changing.