Zero Mile Goalposts: MLS Roots In Atlanta

No longer Outkasts? MLS in Atlanta

No longer Outkasts? MLS in Atlanta

Author John Parker is the AO Atlanta Co-President and founding member.

He’s also the adidas ITP Director of Youth Development and Chief Storyteller. He knows his stuff.

I had always fantasized that the news of Atlanta MLS would arrive with much greater personal fanfare and the jovial mug shot to prove it. Yet, wrapped in a blanket of post-concussive syndrome, I experienced a moment I had fantasized about for a decade plus from a surprising distance. There was the fog that has been ever present the past few weeks casting concern upon my lucidity…and then there was this other question on my tongue, “how much confirmation bias have I heaped upon Atlanta MLS?”

I’m admittedly something of a rarity in Atlanta.

I live in the city of my birth (right down the new streetcar line that will go straight to the new Dome). I prefer to walk or take public transit. The only bar in Atlanta with the MLS Direct Kick package is one block from my house (due to my constant nagging) and I eschewed more romantic pursuits to work in a sport where I never excelled. I watched thirteen hours of MLS this weekend and the rest of the time I spent espousing the cultural growth of the area around downtown Atlanta to an old friend…I should be perfectly positioned to argue the MLS merits of my beloved hometown.

Yet this long-winded deposition begs the point, am I in too deep in to be trusted?

As such I felt the need to write this article to not only make the argument in support of MLS in Atlanta, but also to illuminate my own biases to myself. With a three-year purgatory soon upon us, there will be few topics on my tongue besides the impending team. Those who’ve seen MLS succeed and/or fail in their local towns will glean points that support their argument for or against Atlanta (and I know it’s mostly against). Either way, for me my passion has been directed at “the greater good” of MLS and US Soccer. Now, finally, it can be crafted around my hometown.

A Modern Atlanta

The local narrative surrounding improvements around Atlanta were vastly undermined by two national stories in the past year. With the move of the Atlanta Braves to Cobb County, and the ice storm that stranded motorists throughout the metro area, Atlanta was thrust in to the national purview. As is typical for Atlanta, if the nation cares it’s because we’ve yet again reinforced the concern around unchecked suburban sprawl. It’s true that Atlanta is a city that spends much of its time in cars transporting to and from the northern suburbs. It’s also true that the demographics of the city become a good bit more homogenous as you drive north.

These are issues I jest about locally, and issues I choose to mitigate when I craft the story of Atlanta for myself. It’s also an issue that came to a head during the Braves move and one that will be fascinating come 2017. While nationally the focus rested upon the density of the sprawl and population north of the city, the focus within Atlanta was one of division. Rapid demographic and cultural changes brought investment and an influx of young professionals back in to the east and west sides of the city. It’s the “g” word in caps lock, and it has been happening at near New York speed. With the growth in the city came money and a larger political voice. This voice stands in stark contrast with that of the northern counties.

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The Braves, a fixture in the east side of Atlanta and a cultural hallmark for many of the mid twenty to thirty something’s that now populate the area, elected for the easy money in the north over the growth potential in the city. This repudiated the momentum people like me believed was consistent in Atlanta’s evolution. However, the feeling of loss and insult that populated the daily topics of conversation was actually reinvigorating. It became clear Atlanta had formed a definitive identity, one that can and will eventually battle the national narrative of sprawl, sweet tea, and Waffle House. With easy access via Atlanta Rapid Transit (MARTA), the new Street Car or simply by foot, a successful grassroots campaign can form a core from the burgeoning identity of Atlanta.

An envelopment of Downtown Atlanta has come from the surrounding neighborhoods and inspired multiple massive developments besides the new stadium. With new investment in Downtown, a culture around the team and game day experience should follow. And with some craftily disseminated marketing campaigns, the desire to unify and represent a city oft maligned and undersold could create an unexpected surge of passion.

This is not to discount greater Atlanta as a whole. Atlanta MLS will and should try to build upon the massive Hispanic presence as well as the swath of youth soccer. MLS 3.0 will and must draw from these demographics. However, the national discussion on attendance of El Tri games and the omnipresence of youth soccer purposefully manipulates the argument to assume other opportunities aren’t more fruitful. The demographics for a downtown team that have shown success in the Pacific Northwest, Kansas City and elsewhere are here and growing. In 2017, they’ll be presented with a team to call their own as the Braves hit the trail for the suburbs. The tribal nature that epitomizes MLS supporter culture is one that I’ve often sought here in Atlanta and one I embrace with each opportunity.

I project myself on my neighbors in prescribing it for them as well. Whether this is a myopic belief or not will be an essential part of the equation for success.

A Sporting Quandary

A favorite case against Atlanta is the supposed fickle nature of its fans. Herein lies a larger question for Atlanta MLS where personal optimism faces a much more treacherous course. There is context for each professional team in Atlanta that allows for an educated argument that it is not the citizens’ fault. Yet our sprint to craft context does belie the truth to the national argument. To say Atlantans are fickle sports fans is to overlook that it is the capitol city of arguably the most passionate set of fans, those of southern college football. This will never change considering that the graduates of southern schools find the greatest upward mobility in Atlanta.

For many, college football is so large that it leaves little vacancy for other sports. I sympathize as I’ve had a similar reaction with soccer, having become something of a bandwagon fan for all other local sports considering I already occupy so much of my passion with a single pursuit.

However, while it is easy to roll my eyes at those who say Atlanta is not a sports town, it is much more difficult to argue against Atlanta not being a professional sports town. To sway the football diehards to take a Saturday in the fall off for soccer will be difficult. For this portion of the populace, I have questions I cannot answer. There are some traits to the city, however, that do console my attempts to craft my preferred narrative.

Most importantly, unlike the other local franchises they will not be competing with teams from other cities for Atlanta’s passion. What MLS lacks in generational continuity can be advantageous to expansion clubs in a young league, especially in a city with such a highly proportional transplant community.

There is a ground swell of a more contagious civic pride to expand from, and what I believe will be a downtown location in the top 20% in MLS. There are the demographics that convert to MLS fans and a void being opened by the Braves. These advantages should allow MLS breathing room in a claustrophobic sports city. The opportunities afforded being more about overcoming the sporting landscape may mean smoke bombs and sports radio won’t institutionalize this franchise. Successfully transforming Atlanta MLS in to a cultural landmark will require the proper organizational commitment Arthur Blank.

Prospecting for ticket buyers...

Prospecting for ticket buyers…

 

The Rich Man of Atlanta

I won’t harp on Arthur Blank’s business acumen, as I find little correlation between that and sporting success (plenty of intelligent men have found sports to be a great opportunity for business reasons alone). Rather, I’d focus on what Arthur Blank has meant to the Atlanta sporting landscape. As much as we (myself included) like to extol the importance of supporter culture, the quality of the organization for MLS is a necessary first. Portland’s brilliant marketing campaign, the organizational evolution in Kansas City, and the ambitious brilliance of Tim Leiweke were the conditions that build the foundation for strong supporter cultures to thrive in their respective cities. Here lies one of, if not the greatest of, Atlanta’s advantages. Some may remember the days of Ted Turner as owner of the Braves and Hawks.

In these days Atlanta was signing reigning Cy Young pitchers, packing the Omni for Hawks games, and finding unity in its sporting culture. Turner’s merger with Time Warner lead to a corporatization of the Atlanta sports teams and a loss of the façade that separated business from pride and passion. Left with an out of town corporate Braves ownership and a scrapheap collective for the Hawks and Thrashers rife with infighting, the city has instituted Arthur Blank as the 21st Century Atlantan Daddy Warbucks. Blank has been harkened upon to save each Atlanta franchise throughout his ownership.

While some do not appreciate his omnipresence within the team (he often stands on the sideline at the end of Falcons games), it cannot be denied that he is the only owner in the city who cares about his team and the city it represents, while capably executing upon his ambition. While there is no proof that he will show similar commitment to MLS, there simply isn’t a body of evidence to point either way. Yes, Home Depot has invested heavily in MLS and US Soccer, and the Blank Foundation has been involved with soccer non-profits as well.

However, these actions do not inspire me to erect barricades Peachtree Street, and they won’t for you either. We have to search for our context elsewhere. His investment in the city of Atlanta is the best body of proof we have for Blank’s commitment. I won’t bore with further details here, but it is at the least well built in to his public perception. The unfortunate nature of soccer in America is there simply isn’t a historical passion for the sport that permeates the ultra-wealthy. What we can plead to in the case of expansion is often the import placed in their public perception and their pride in the city they are investing in. With Arthur Blank it is easy to be optimistic that pleas to both will be heard.

What is Soccer in Atlanta?

While I’ve delved in to my optimism for the trajectory of the city and our most visible investor, this is unfortunately a question I cannot avoid here. I’ve avoided it so far due to my admitted confusion of what soccer means in most any diverse American town. There is a vast youth soccer scene in Atlanta, a large Hispanic presence, and a multicultural influence upon the evolving culture…these have not been the determining factors for MLS success yet.

Terminus Legion

Terminus Legion

There is a comparatively well-attended D2 team and a supporter group, Terminus Legion, already established. This bodes well, but…teams have succeeded even without this in place. What soccer means to your town is often very different than what American soccer means to your town. The difference rests at the confluence of dwindling apathy and a palpable void. It’s the reason American soccer is so damn interesting…because there is still so much mystery. As such, I find Atlanta to embody many of the traits of MLS. While I would say it is an average soccer town, there is a palpable void where MLS could create an American soccer town.

Conclusion

None of the arguments contained within will likely sway the cynics. They are not enough to inspire me to guarantees either. There are immutable concerns for a city that hasn’t shown a united civic or sporting pride with consistency. However, what I do know is that there is a very real potential for above average here. The arguments I’ve focused upon outline what are likely major advantages that have been essential aspects of previous MLS expansion sides’ success. To expect complete fulfillment of these advantages in a new region in a new era of MLS would admittedly be naïve. I may simply be overemphasizing a narrative I embrace to inspire confidence in order to neglect of a more ominous eventuality.

But the difficulty defining American soccer portends to the difficulty in estimating its grasp. At best one can look at the vessel and estimate the capacity. To return to my opening, it becomes clear that the argument for Atlanta is largely an argument born from the hope of what it could become. This conclusion, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to necessitate the narrative I’ve attempted to construct.

However, it does differentiate Atlanta from many of the previous expansion sides. In Orlando there is a very clear expectation. Nationally there were expectations of Philadelphia, of Montreal. There was an insurgence in Portland, and a collectivity in Seattle. As such Atlanta may be the most indeterminable expansion project yet, one that should cast doubts on certainties from both cynics and optimists. But Hope is a trait that exemplifies the sport in this country, and makes being a fan of it so worthwhile. In Atlanta it should be a trait that galvanizes a city that is ready to transition from hope to fulfillment.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by herc on 2014/04/10 at 7:41 PM

    An addition from someone that grew up in the 90s in North Carolina:

    The Braves were (and still are) THE baseball team for the entire southeast (Florida doesn’t count, too far away and much different culturally). The best part about the Braves was their TV package on TBS. It seemed like every game was broadcast, and TBS was in the standard packages throughout the region. If MLS can get something even close to half as good as that TBS deal was for the Braves, it would be amazing.

    The Falcons were the NFL team for the Carolinas before the Panthers. You can still find a large (though dwindling) number of Falcons fans throughout the Panther’s footprint. It is part of what made the Panthers/Falcons such a great rivalry from the inaugural season. (Perfect MLS rivalry too, either Charlotte or Raleigh!)

    Altogether, if you are only going to have 1 team in the cultural southeast, Atlanta is where you go. You will gain fans not only from its huge population base but also from the Carolinas as they finally gain an MLS team that is closer that 8+ hours away (DC United and Columbus Crew).

    Reply

  2. Posted by Matt on 2014/04/11 at 7:22 AM

    The facts remain: Atlanta is the 9th largest metro area in the US and the only top 10 market yet without an MLS team, is a big media market (Turner, CNN, etc), is home to some of the biggest Fortune brands/sponsors in the world (eg Coca Cola), already has a successful (4th best attendance in the league) NASL level team in the Silverbacks, has one of the best sports owners in the country (Arthur Blank) and real soccer royalty in the form of Liverpool transplant and full time Atlanta native and sports marketing whiz Bernie Mullin, has a huge youth sports presence and several players that have made it to the national team and international level (eg Josh Wolf, Clint Mathis, others), has a brand new stadium going under construction to rival the best stadiums in the world AND when you include the populations of Georgia and its contiguous states (SC, NC, TN, AL) you have a total population of 35M to pull from – whereas many of the other larger metros already with teams compete with other large metros only a state away (and in some cases within a few hours’ drive). If the Blank machine can do this right as they’ve proven successful with Home Depot and the Falcons and the Arthur Blank Foundation and everything else he has touched, there’s no reason why this can’t be a big success for MLS and for Atlanta.
    The only questions are: what will the name be – and when can I buy my season tickets?

    Reply

  3. Everyone is making excellent points. To Matt, I have felt your pain. My history of frustration goes further back than yours. Has a Sophmore in hs, I saw Pele and the Cosmos play in the Astrodome V the one year and done Houston Hurricane. At 50 I have heard all the pronouncements of the future of Soccer [ ]. The few games of the pre Becks MLS were just to painful to watch after see the WC. Now it much improved but still something infrequent. I would rather stand with the Atlanta Ultras at Silverback Park than sit with 10,000 quiet fans. There room for all levels in the SE and is. Why wait for the elusive 2017. Look up the USL PRO and NASL clubs in your area. Support them while you see what Blank has planned. Sure the quality won’t be what you see on TV. Neither is Stoke, Sunderland or Norwich. Who knows you might enjoy yourself.
    There has to be a healthy American Pyramid of soccer. With the NPSL and PDL, those players working their way to the top flight have no place do so. Portland?Seattle have a 37 year history across all levels that is continuing in the MLS. Even with an ATL club, it’s still 8 hours to Columbus and X hours to Orlando. I’m tired of the MLS is the savior of American Soccer in my city. What you see on TV in the supporter sections could be yours to experience at an Actual Match. My club is Detroit City FC in the NPSL. The NASL, general census in NGS, is the next step. When a summer league D4 club draws 1300/game in their second season. +300 form the first. Expecting sellout on May 10, you’ll have to excuse my lack of sympathy for you forcing a bar to get the MLS package instead of going to one Silverback game.
    Look for me in the middle of the densest smoke when the twitter and Tumblr pictures show up. CTID
    I also cover all things Lower Tier for Stoppage Time Soccer.

    Reply

  4. agree with comments and nice article.
    the big thing as well is – what youth club does the MLS team align with for developmental academy. This will have a huge impact on the landscape of Georgia soccer and DA. or do they start there own club……
    Also, I’m still a believer that the best spot for a pro soccer team is in north Atlanta. There is a soccer club almost every 5 miles, tons and tons of youth players on the north side. You put a soccer only facility north of 285, place would be rocking with all the youth soccer players in this city. Teams would flock every weekend.
    Either way, I think the first few years an Atlanta team will be very well attended, but as stated above Atlanta fans are very fickle. We are traditionally #1 college sports fans and #2 very passionate about youth sports. Whether its youth soccer /baseball/football or now lacrosse, this town is crazy for super competitive youth sports which in my mind take priority over any professional team. to be successful you have to bridge the 2 together. this is where i don’t think the silverbacks have done a good job. i know programs have asked for games to be played at silverbacks facility, ie championships of local tournaments prior to kickoffs etc, and been turned town.

    Reply

  5. Interesting points in this article – a really good read. I don’t think I can add anything that wasnt in the article or mentioned by other posters. I will say that I wish MLS had offered to refund a portion of the ATL expansion fee in exchange for making the stadium have a removable natural grass playing surface. It technologically feasible and is currently employed at University of Phoenix stadium in Glendale (and perhaps others that I am not aware of). I have yet to see a game played on turf that isnt negatively impacted, especially if there has been rain. Just watch a Seattle game: the ball plays so quickly on the turf there, which makes passes much harder to control and thus, the game looks a lot more sloppy. Gridiron football and soccer require different types of surfaces (as I understand it, football players prefer a firmer playing surface while soccer prefers a more forgiving one) and sharing a stadium would hopefully marginalize neither of them. Obviously, employing that technology would be expensive – hence the refund of part of the expansion fee. Otherwise, best of luck to the Atlanta franchise and congratulations to the fans who have been waiting for this moment.

    Reply

  6. Posted by James H on 2014/04/15 at 6:40 AM

    I hope for the best because it sounds like this is going to happen, but playing in an NFL first stadium, located downtown, on artificial turf with seating “draped” off for the soccer crowd just sounds like all the wrong things for MLS. Too many red flags for a fickle sports market. The Sporting KC model should have been followed here. I just fear that in ten years time the Atlanta experiment will have ended because MLS failed to adhere to some sound principles they have generally followed.

    Reply

    • Posted by Freegle on 2014/04/15 at 11:00 AM

      On the other hand, these may have been concessions that the MLS had to make in order to get into a market they wanted. Other than team centric investment money, there is no adjacent risk for the owner or the city. He’s not investing in a stadium that may sit empty if the MLS Atlanta collapses, no extra money spent on a surface, no new infrastructure like transportation, etc. All of that is built into the football stadium that will host NFL, college/bowl games, and probably a Superbowl at some point. This proposal screams “risk aversion/minimization for the investor group.” It seems contradictory to all of the progression to SSS and individual identity that MLS has made in the past decade to marry an expansion franchise to an NFL team like this.

      Reply

  7. i also understand that probably one of the reasons ATL was even considered was because the facility that AB is building which be ready for use for soccer vs having to build a 100 million dollar facility elsewhere….
    however, MLS in atlanta is a no brainer, the hub of the southeast. i’m hoping it succeeds regardless of where they play or train.

    Reply

  8. Posted by WatertownMA on 2014/04/17 at 4:22 AM

    A scholarly op-ed. Lots of assertions, few examples to back up those assertions, but an enjoyable read nonetheless.

    There seems to be a move away from SSS requirement unless a franchise is within a major tv market – and that’s a shame.

    Reply

  9. Not to dismiss this well written article, but when are we going to see TSG’s “Who’s on the plane to Brazil” or whatever that series of articles was called during the run up to World Cup 2010? Will TSG have some access to the pre-World Cup camp in Stanford being that it’s so close to TSG HQ? How about just a taste with your projections on who gets invited to the May camp? I’m losing my freakin’ mind with anticipation over here!

    Reply

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