On the 16th of April, MLS is to announce Atlanta as the next MLS expansion team after Orlando City, New York City Football Club and David Beckham’s Miami team. The geography of the new four indicates the direction MLS is heading for. Specifically the south, as MLS has traditionally struggled there.
In the early days of MLS, the high profile Miami Fusion proved to be disastrous, and ended up going bust. In the more stable league of 2014, the league feels now is the time to crack the southern problem.
It would make the Georgia team the 23rd club and would continue the drive to the 24-team format the league is striving for.
Atlanta is hardly a secret in America. It is well known that Don Garber, the league commissioner, and the Atlanta Falcons NFL team owner, Arthur Blank, have been in discussions about bringing MLS to the south for years.
In fact, the future venture has always been considered by the NFL team, as they begin to plan for a new stadium to open in 2017. The stadium will also be accommodating of a soccer field.
Talking about the stadium, Don Garber seemed hopeful: ”We’ve been working on a downsizing technology that we think would be unique, would be the only one of its kind anywhere in the world,” Garber said. ”We’ve got to continue to work hard with Atlanta to see if this whole project makes sense for them. But I am encouraged by the discussions and hope to be able to finalize something.”
While a $1.2 billion stadium is one that shows great intent from the state, it is still a large risk. Mention the Miami Fusion to a veteran MLS fan, and they will tell you that teams like Miami, Orlando and Atlanta will fail. It is a viewpoint that is far too simplistic and historic.
The positive for Atlanta is the sheer size of the population. It contains around 5.2 million people as potential soccer fans. Also, the city works almost as a capital on the south, if MLS needs to succeed anywhere, it is Atlanta. The city could function as a platform of MLS growth in the south. From a league point of view, nothing would improve the portfolio more than bring in the high profile Atlanta owner, who is worth billions of dollars to go with that big reputation.
The negatives on the other hand, are more difficult. In a more modern take, the difficulty of southern expansion comes from the mentality. Down there, college sports take a strange precedent to professional sports that from a European perspective is difficult to understand.
In professional sports, their fans are accused of being hard to please. It is not the full story. Despite average success, the Atlanta Braves of baseball, and the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL bring in average attendances in their respective sports. In contrast, the Hawks of the NBA regularly pull in poor attendances. The stats suggests little in the way of encouragement or disappointment for the Atlanta team.
It may be a case of the city relying on its 5% Hispanic population to form the basis of a soccer fan base. Fortunately, Atlanta seems a more promising location that Miami or Orlando, whose teams struggle with attendances regardless of sport or success. However, Atlanta is far more of a risk.
MLS needs Atlanta to succeed. The battle to win over southern fans will be a difficult one, but if MLS can crack Atlanta, it can crack anywhere.