Your skepticism is warranted. Amid all of the ballyhoo and positive vibes surrounding the star-studded April 16 MLS announcement (Arthur Blank, Mayor Kasim Reed, former national team star Alexi Lalas, and MLS Commissioner Don Garber were all in attendance) there was a lingering question on the minds of sports fans in and outside of Atlanta: This is going to work, right?
Even before Blank laid out his plans, there were skeptics. When it comes to Atlanta sports, there are plenty of naysayers whose arsenal of negative claims range from warranted to just plain dumb. The city's been called the "worst sports town in America" — thanks, former ESPN.com writer Rob Parker — because of weak attendance numbers, its transient nature, and lack of sports history. Parker wasn't the first and certainly won't be the last to call ATL's sports chops into question.
In April, Washington Post veteran soccer journalist Steven Goff's piece "MLS's imperfect expansion plans" wondered if Atlanta's bid made "practical sense." Goff said the city's soccer history was "modest" at best, attendance for the major teams was seriously lacking, and pointed out the contentious relationship between shared NFL-MLS stadiums. "Except for in Seattle where CenturyLink Field works well for MLS for so many reasons, the league should be veering from NFL stadiums not toward them," Goff wrote.
Speaking of Seattle, it could be argued that its MLS squad, the Sounders, is one of the greatest expansion stories in the history of sports. Since the team's inaugural season in 2009, the Sounders have qualified for the playoffs and led MLS in attendance with more than 32,000 butts in seats per game over the last five seasons. They've found success embedding themselves into the community and incorporating soccer into the consciousness of the city. The team has what's called the Alliance Council, a voting body made up of fans that acts as a liaison between fans and team ownership. In a league that has attracted an estimated $90 million TV partnership with ESPN, Fox Sports, and Univision Deportes, the Sounders are the model for new teams to follow.
But is it realistic to think that Atlanta will achieve Seattle's success? The city will come out for major sporting events (think Mexico vs. Nigeria in the Georgia Dome earlier this year) but has a mixed record when it comes to supporting teams (R.I.P. Atlanta Thrashers). Metro Atlanta is home to the country's second-fastest growing foreign-born population, a fact Blank and company hope will add up to success for "the world's sport" in Atlanta.
Jeremiah Oshan, the MLS blog manager for SB Nation, was convinced the Atlanta MLS plan was doomed from the start. In February, before the MLS presser, Oshan's column titled "MLS expansion to Atlanta would be a mistake" echoed Parker's editorial from two years ago. Oshan's list of gripes included ATL's "fickle" fans, minimal soccer history, skepticism about Blank's intentions, and the lack of harmony in other shared MLS/NFL stadiums.
"While the city has a willing ownership group and a stadium that seems passable, there's very little reason to believe that a MLS team would be successful there," Oshan wrote.
A Seattle native by way of California who's been covering the Sounders since 2010, Oshan's piece caught the ire of local MLS grassroots fan group Terminus Legion. In its poignant rebuttal, Terminus Legion criticized the story, saying it was written by someone 2,000 miles away and "spews the same tired clichés often cited about Atlanta."
Oshan has since changed his mind about Atlanta and soccer, and even his skepticism surrounding Blank's motives. Plenty of NFL owners have been more concerned with making cash from an extra tenant than building a prominent franchise. "At the time, I just totally wasn't convinced that this guy really cared about MLS," Oshan says. "After seeing his press conference and hearing him talk, I was convinced that he gets it." In addition, the response and passion from the fans — 10,000 season ticket deposits made thus far — were more than heartening.
Blank said all the right things during the presser: He promised a stadium that could shift from American-football crazed mecca to intimate soccer pitch; there would be no lining on the field leftover from the Falcons; and the team would be a priority and not an afterthought.
The Atlanta pride was felt in Chicago by Conyers native and current Chicago Fire assistant coach Clint Mathis. Mathis, a product of Georgia's youth soccer leagues and Heritage High School, won an MLS Cup with Real Salt Lake in 2009.
When Mathis first joined MLS in 1998, he wasn't exactly sold on its longevity. "I don't think anybody was confident that the league would stay afloat after what happened to the NASL back in the day," Mathis says of the North American Soccer League, the failed predecessor of the MLS.
Sixteen years later, Mathis says that Atlanta landing an MLS team shows the league's growth and the city's growing soccer culture. "To say that Atlanta's not going to embrace it, it's not a sports town or anything — I lived in L.A. and I've heard it so many times that L.A. isn't a sports town. Well, they seem to do alright out there," he says.
Ultimately, the new organization's fate rests on the city's willingness to embrace the team and vice versa.
"It doesn't matter if Jeremiah Oshan thinks that soccer is going to succeed in Atlanta, what matters is ultimately what Atlantans think about it," Oshan says. "[Journalists] can hate on Atlanta as a soccer market all we want but if people are showing up that's what's really going to determine it."
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