Arthur Blank says purchasing soccer team for Atlanta is ‘close to his heart’

By Maria Saporta

For Arthur Blank, buying a Major League Soccer franchise is as emotional a move as he’s ever made.

Blank, co-founder of the Home Depot and majority owner of the Atlanta Falcons, is first and foremost a smart businessman who has learned to connect with customers and fans while holding true to his core philanthropic values of making the community a better place.

And that will still be true with his new MLS franchise — the 22nd in the league.

Crowds gather at Ventanas in downtown Atlanta waiting for MLS announcement (Photos by Maria Saporta)

Crowds gather at Ventanas in downtown Atlanta waiting for MLS announcement (Photos by Maria Saporta)

But the game of soccer and the new Atlanta team that will be playing in the retractable roof stadium in 2017 is touching Blank in a way that no other venture has touched him before.

“It is very close to my heart,” said Blank, as his voice began to quiver during an interview before the celebratory announcement Wednesday afternoon. “It’s very personal to me. It’s wonderful to be able to share something with my associates, my fans, my family and my new family.”

Joshua Blank, 17, plays soccer “at a very high level,” and he has since he was quite young, Arthur Blank said.

Joshua acknowledged that his father really came to appreciate the sport of soccer through him – coming to his games and learning to share a passion for the sport.

Arthur Blank talks to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed before the announcement

Arthur Blank talks to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed before the announcement

Two years ago in early February, while attending games in Joshua’s soccer league, Arthur Blank met Angela Macuga, who he described Wednesday as “the poster child of what it means to be a soccer mom, and I mean that in a great way.”

Macuga’s two children, Emily and Drew, also are strong soccer players competing in the same league, which gave Blank and Macuga an opportunity to share their love for the sport and each other. They got engaged this past February.

“That’s what soccer is to me – a lot of emotion,” Blank admitted during the announcement.

When asked how much Blank paid for that emotion, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said “between $70 million to $100 million” without getting more specific. “That’s more than we’ve told anyone,” he added.

Frank Poe of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority visits with Arthur Blank.

Frank Poe of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority  with Arthur Blank before the announcement

The announcement took place at Ventanas, which has a spectacular window front view and balcony overlooking the aquarium (built and paid for by Blank’s former partner – Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus) and Centennial Olympic Park.

Garber had to leave our interview with Blank a little abruptly to go board a helicopter so he could make a most dramatic entrance by helicopter on the helipad on top of Ventanas to make the formal announcement.

Before leaving, both Garber and Blank said that now was the right time to bring soccer to Atlanta. Garber had worked in the National Football League for 16 years before joining MLS 15 years ago.

Blank and Garber began talking about a possible MLS team in Atlanta about a decade ago. At the time, MLS was locating its teams in stadiums outside of downtown areas, and that model was not working all that well.  MLS then realized that it was having a resounding success in urban downtown stadiums where there were diverse ethnic populations.

Joshua Blank waiting for official announcement about Atlanta soccer team

Joshua Blank waiting for official announcement about Atlanta soccer team

That was about the time that Blank began formalizing plans for a new Falcons stadium that currently is under construction next to the Georgia Dome. Having soccer play in the new stadium was part of the design from the beginning.

“We started to talk again more seriously a couple of years ago,” Blank said. “The momentum built up very naturally.”

Garber said MLS was always interested in striking a deal with Blank.

“Everybody in the sports industry knows Arthur and the reputation he has and the commitment he has to run a first-class operation,” said Garber, adding that having a passionate owner is critical to having a successful MLS franchise in a community.

Joshua and Arthur Blank at announcement of new Atlanta soccer team

Joshua and Arthur Blank at announcement of new Atlanta soccer team

“Ten years ago wasn’t the right time to have an MLS team in Atlanta,” Garber said. “I’m not sure Atlanta would have been the right city for us them. The league is now twice as large. Now is the right time.”

Atlanta has been the largest television market without a MLS team, and it will be one of the first MLS teams in the South.  Miami first needs to be able to build a stadium for a team that is to be owned by soccer star David Beckham. And Tampa also is slated to have a new soccer team possibly as early as 2016.

Asked if MLS would have considered selling an MLS franchise to any owner other than Arthur Blank, Garber instantly said: “No. We wouldn’t be in Atlanta without Arthur, not only because of who he is, but because of what he has done with the Falcons. Plus this downtown is very important to us.”

Joshua and Arthur Blank

Joshua and Arthur Blank

Blank and the Atlanta soccer team will have a longer time frame to market the franchise — two-and-a-half years — than any other franchise in the league before the team starts playing.

As expected, Blank will use that period to connect with fans — asking them to participate in a competition for a name, a logo design and the color scheme for the team and the uniforms.

“It will be very much fan driven,” Blank said.

Unlike the NFL where there is a profit sharing among the 32 teams, a large percentage of the revenues generated by an MLS franchise are driven locally. That means that it is especially important for Blank and the soccer team to be able to connect with fans and the community in Atlanta, he said.

Arthur Blank and his family at announcement that he's bring MLS team to Atlanta

Arthur Blank and his family at announcement that he’s bringing an MLS team to Atlanta

So Blank said his plan is to put a winning team on the field; to have an incredible stadium design; to give the fans an opportunity to connect to the team; and for players to reach out to the community in a host of ways.

“This decision is important to Atlanta. It’s important for us professionally; and it’s important for my family as well,” Blank said. “Their involvement in soccer is important to me.”

Joshua Blank, who said he watches as much soccer on television as he can, said the family is planning to go to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil – taking place from June 12 to July 13.

As the Atlanta soccer franchise announcement came to a close, a rumbling in the crowd already had begun. People were buzzing about Atlanta going after a future FIFA World Cup.

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30 comments
lloydprogroup
lloydprogroup

We hope this will go a long way to getting our young people out from behind TV screens and outside playing and getting fresh air again :)



lloydprogroup
lloydprogroup

Couldn't be more excited about Atlanta getting a new soccer team. We even blogged about so our clients could hear the good news.

CC
CC

Just a quick clarification. The article states that Atlanta will be the first team in the South until Miami is announced. Orlando City has already been announced and will begin play in MLS in 2015.

CC
CC

Maria, a quick clarification. You stated Atlanta is the only team in the South until Miami is announced. Orlando City SC was announcdd aleady and will begin play in MLS in 2015.

Guest
Guest

As far as soccer goes in terms of quality, the MLS really sucks.  I have played for almost 40 years, played on select youth teams in Buckhead, traveled to play in Europe with my youth teams on two occasions as well as a trip to play in Costa Rica, won two State Championships in Atlanta during high school, played in college, traveled to five separate World Cups, still play in adult leagues, and I find the MLS simply unbearable to watch on TV and cannot imagine paying to go to a game. 

For example, I traveled to Boston in 1994 to watch Argentina - Nigeria (Diego's last game) and to Dallas to watch Holland - Brazil in an epic match during the 1994 WC held in the US. Have traveled to France (1998), South Korea (2002), Germany (2006) and South Africa (2010) to watch the US National Team play in the World Cup (as well as to Melbourne to watch the US play in the 2000 Sydney Olympics), and attended Premiership games in England, but I cannot fathom traveling 6 miles from Buckkhead to Downtown Atlanta to watch to an MLS game. Naturally I also attended the semi-finals and the final in Athens, GA during the 1996 Olympics, with the the Nigeria - Brazil semi-final being one of the greatest International games ever played.


The quality of play is so mediocre compared to the top European leagues that it is simply frightening. I am not alone either. I know many passionate soccer fans and players in the US that would rather watch grass grow than an MLS game.


If you are not a soccer fan, you would not understand. If you are a soccer fan, you know exactly what I am talking about. 


By way of example, compare watching Tiger Woods or Bubba Watson on the back 9 of the final round in the Masters when they are in contention, to watching a golf match between Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.


The MLS is that bad in comparison to its European counterparts.   I think every MLS team loses money as well. This must be some hobby for Blank, because I don't think any MLS owner has ever shown a profit in any year since the league's inception in 1996. Whatever. Rah, rah.  Meanwhile, let me book my tickets for Brazil this summer.

Guest
Guest

@CC  

Don't forget Tampa folded several years ago. 

djescalera
djescalera

@Guest  I am South American and I lived there most of my life. I played soccer there and I got close to quite a few pros. I've talked with players from all over South America, some of them quite famous. The quality of South American soccer used to be the best in the world over the decades now most of the best are in Europe. That's the way it goes sometimes but you always have one thing, your home team. Your home team is always there close to your heart. It's typically where you got your youth soccer lessons. Sometimes your team is killing it and maybe challenging for the Libertadores title. Other times your team is about to descend and is sucky. It's still your team. Only jerks give up on their team when they they're playing bad. I feel sad for you because it looks like you never had that. You grew up loving soccer but with no team to call yours. That sucks. However, I have no idea why you don't want a home team now. A team with players from your town. Maybe they suck right now but if the youth development does well then they could be very, very good. That's the way of soccer. It sounds like you know about soccer. Why don't you work on developing your hometown team? Train some players. Voice your opinion to the team. You know. Like a true soccer fan would if they are from Europe or South America. 

Mike B
Mike B

You played youth soccer and you have travelled to Europe? Wow! You really are an expert!

I don't think aging euro-snob is the demographic MLS is shooting for.

Rock Gaines
Rock Gaines

@Guest  So what is MLS to do? Just quit? Then we'll hear how the USA has no pro soccer at all. It's great that you've had these top notch experiences, but MLS is the top soccer league in this country, and that's the way it is. Everybody can't play in Premier League or the other European leagues. Besides, MLS will continue to grow as more parents steer their kids away from American football because of the potential for injury.

Mike03
Mike03

@djescalera  Very well said DJ.  Up here in Seattle we've had the pleasure of watching some great SA players from Colombia, Uruguay and Argentina play for our Sounders.

@Guest I hope you lighten up on the eurosnobbery and show your local team some love.

Guest
Guest

@djescalera  

I grew up with the Atlanta Chiefs as my "home team" in the old NASL, with quality of play that exceeds that of the current MLS. I saw the NY Cosmos play in persons, etc.  Since you know what you are talking about, would you agree that watching MLS is like watching grass grow?

By the way, as you know, the Copa Libertadores remains one of the most exciting tournaments in the world.


Joe Matthews
Joe Matthews

@USfan111  

That guy is a total moron...

Guest
Guest

@Mike B  

Wow Mike. A real MLS "fanboy".  I assume you have never seen a world class match in person.   Try it sometime. It will amaze you, if you actually understand the game. The MLS would love to get my demographic. The problem is they cannot fool us into thinking the product they put out is worth watching.

Guest
Guest

@Rock Gaines  

League attendance was down year over year from 2012 to 2013.  It always gets a slight bump in a WC year, so the numbers this summer will look pretty good. 

Sgc
Sgc

@Guest @Sgc @djescalera  Yep, once again you've said absolutely nothing, except to tout yourself as some OG of the game, as if anybody gave a crap. 

djescalera
djescalera

@Guest @djescalera  Watching grass grow? Soccer is soccer. Some teams don't know how to treat the ball so they are hard to watch. But mostly, you can find good teams and good players in any pro league. What's fun, specially now that I'm older is to watch the talent grow. Frankly, I really can't understand you. Some soccer fans are like opera fans, they only want to watch the top talent and the could care less about anything local. Most, soccer fans are the "dirty faces". They admire the top players but mostly they're watching the kid from the neighborhood growing stronger and more skillful. That's the soul of soccer. That's where the world's greats come from. From the dusty fields. NASL as far as I can tell was the Harlem Globetrotters. They come, they do pretty tricks and they leave. The club is always with the neighborhood. They give the kids a place to play, they raise a few them up to be pros. Occasionally you get some greats. I used to only watch MLS at the first to see a few of my countrymen. Now that my kids are growing up American I want them to have their local club. Nowadays all the American clubs have academies and have Americans in their teams. That's community, that's soccer. You opera fans if you want you can watch the top leagues but I don't see why you have to hate on your local team especially if it has local players.

Guest
Guest

@Sgc @djescalera 

I know the history of the Atlanta Chiefs quite well.  You ever actually attended one of their games, or just doing google research?

Sgc
Sgc

@Guest @djescalera  You must not have followed them well, or else you'd know that in their first run, from 1967 to 1972, the league wasn't much more than a semi-pro outlet.  And one would hope that if you weren't completely oblivious, you'd realize that a league that starts out that way is not doomed to stay that way.

Sgc
Sgc

@Guest @Sgc  Narrow?!?!  AHAHAHA you hypocrite.

Guest
Guest

@Sgc  

In your narrow world, I suppose you can be a "fan" of a pile of dog poop. Enjoy!

Sgc
Sgc

@Guest Yes, they're ALL FANBOYS.  Except you.  You will never know what it means to be a fan.  That's what makes you so awesome, and not a douche undeserving of oxygen at all.

Sgc
Sgc

@Guest @Sgc  Erm, read the question again, jerk.  I think you'll find a list of players doesn't answer it.  


Your whole world view is totally screwed up.  Knowing how good Ronaldo was doesn't make you a soccer expert.  A FIVE YEAR OLD could see how good Ronaldo was.  How much basketball knowledge did it take to say 'hey that Jordan guy seems to be pretty good'?  Zero.,

Your position is that everyone who actually supports their local side is just too stupid to see how good the best are?  Seriously????  No it isn't, humans aren't really that stupid.  You're obviously just some sort of 'bot, pre-programmed to spout eurosnob shibboleths.

I'm sure all the fans of real, grassroots football are just stupid troglodytes who don't know about the game, or else they would have switched to Manchester United (and then abandoned them this year when the going got slightly rough).  LOL!  You're bad at being human.

Guest
Guest

@Sgc  

Question asked and answered.  Check your reading comprehension skills.  

I answered your rhetorical question with reference to a long, but not even complete, list of players I have personally seen play live. Have you ever even heard of any of them?  My so-called "standards" are based on what I have personally observed, and the MLS cannot field a product which comes anywhere close.

You sound like a fan of WUSA and the Atlanta Beat. Probably still have little Teddy Bears with Atlanta Beat jerseys and crying over their demise. How pathetic. 


Without googling, you have any idea how good R9 Ronaldo was from 1996 to 1999 before the knee injuries?  I bet you don't, and since you don't, you will never understand how mediocre the MLS is. Have fun though.

Guest
Guest

@Sgc  

I answered your rhetorical question with reference to a long list of players I have seen play live - and this list is not even complete. Have you ever even heard of any of these people?

To make it crystal clear to you, when you have seen these types of players play live, it is not my fault MLS is not up to my "standards". It is the fault of MLS, because the league cannot put that kind of product on the field.  You sound like a former fan of WUSA and the Atlanta Beat. How nauseating.


Do you have any idea how good C9 Ronaldo was from 1996 to 1999?  Try a little more google research buddy.

Sgc
Sgc

@Guest @Sgc  Dodged the question.

Guest
Guest

@Sgc  

Is MLS up to your standards?  

Have you ever seen the now retired Brazilian Ronaldo play in person? 

Have you ever seen the likes of Ronaldinho, Jay-Jay Okocha, Romario, Bebeto, Rivaldo, Cafu, Jay-Jay Okocha, Kanu, Sunday Oliseh, Pavel Nedvěd, Dennis Bergkamp, Totti, Luca Toni, Klinsmann, Michael Essien, Beckenbauer and Diego Maradona play in person? 

It is breathtaking brother.   

Sgc
Sgc

@Guest  After growing like 25% in the previous several years, you're going to swing an argument on the year it was down 1%.


And if MLS isn't up to your standards, isn't it pretty much your own fault?  One signs players with money, and one gets money from fans.

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