Thursday, May 10, 2012

MLS Expansion: Atlanta

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.

2 comments :

  1. I really like these analyses on the league structure and economics of MLS. I am curious to see how and where the league expands to, and how many teams it has at its maximum size. A 32-team top flight would be impressive

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  2. the Silverbacks are averaging about 4,300 fans a game thru 4 home games of the 2012 season.

    and while Atlanta has a reputation as a "poor" pro-sports town it is actually "mediocre" ... if you compare each team's average attendance and % Capacity to the median for its league (so 100 would be exactly equal to the league's median) Atlanta scores about 200 across all of its teams. so it is pretty much exactly mediocre. whereas many of the other potential markets so often talked about (Miami and Tampa) are well well below the 200 combined median. so it could be worse.

    i would warn however that a quick look at ownership in MLS shows that more often than not the teams that are attendance laggards or terrible on the field (TFC) have a tendency to have their ownership groups heavily involved in other sports endeavours which take precedence over the MLS team. and a look at most of the successful attendance MLS teams shows that their ownership (or at least 50% of the ownership group) has a sole focus on the MLS team.

    so hoping for the NFL owner Blank to own the MLS team entirely (unlike say Seattle where the NFL owner is only 1/4th of the ownership group and a silent 1/4th at that) is begging for the team to end up like Kraft's Revolution or Hunt's Columbus and FC Dallas. and it makes sense because an NFL team is worth near billions and generates millions so it is not hard to see why an MLS team worth less than 100M and which barely breaks even would be an after thought and be treated as such and would lose every decision between the NFL and MLS when it came down to it.

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