By Amy Wenk and Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Friday, April 26, 2013
Conversation is kicking around again about scoring a Major League Soccer team for Atlanta.
Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank has long wanted to bring an MLS franchise to the city.
Now, he’s got another chance.
A deal is done for a new $1 billion Falcons stadium that could also house a soccer team when it opens in 2017. Plans are to build the retractable-roof stadium to accommodate a MLS team, as well as host major soccer events such as the FIFA World Cup.
“We believe that a world-class city like Atlanta needs a Major League Soccer team, and that Major League Soccer will be very successful here,” Rich McKay, president and CEO of the Falcons, said in a statement to Atlanta Business Chronicle. “We are trying to facilitate that happening by configuring a new stadium to accommodate the requirements of professional soccer.”
Both the Falcons and MLS confirmed they are in contact regularly. But, no formal meetings are scheduled so far.
“At this point, we are open to various options, including our own ownership of a team or someone else owning a team,” McKay said. “If that proves to be possible, we would be prepared to host soccer in the stadium” when it opens. Soccer season starts in March, so it would probably be 2014 at the earliest for the team’s first game.
MLS was eager to talk about a future in Atlanta. It’s the largest television market in the country without an MLS team.
“We are big believers in the Atlanta market,” said Dan Courtemanche, MLS executive vice president. “We’ve been closely monitoring their progress with the new stadium. The Falcons organization is one of the most respected sports organizations in North America and certainly Major League Soccer would benefit from ownership such as Arthur Blank and his family.”
But, it could be a costly for Blank to own a team. Expansion fees for a new MLS franchise could cost up to $40 million, Courtemanche said.
And, Atlanta is not on the immediate radar for MLS. The organization is focused on putting its 20th expansion team in New York, which would be the second pro soccer team in that city. MLS is deep in discussions with groups to fund a new stadium for that team in Queens, Courtemanche said.
MLS had a plan to grow to 20 teams and hasn’t yet defined how it will expand the league beyond that. Courtemanche believes it will continue to grow and said the goal is to have at least one team in the Southeast.
“There’s no doubt in our mind when it comes to Atlanta’s potential as an expansion city,” he said. “There are so many positives to the market.”
That includes a growing Hispanic population and a strong base of corporations that could offer sponsorships.
Courtemanche said it remains possible for Atlanta to get an MLS team in time for the opening day of the new Falcons stadium.
The process for securing an MLS expansion team today is much different than when Blank submitted a bid in 2008 to own and operate a team. He eventually withdrew that application when it proved challenging to find partners to help fund a new soccer stadium.
There’s no longer a bid process for interested cities, Courtemanche said. That’s because the league is more established and now seeks out desirable markets on a case-by-case basis.
Atlanta already is home to a pro soccer team, the Atlanta Silverbacks. The team is part of the North American Soccer League (NASL), a division below MLS that launched in 2011.
It’s possible that the Silverbacks could be essentially “promoted” to an MLS team, which could prove easier than starting from scratch.
It doesn’t seem that’s being considered right now.
“We’re not familiar with plans for the Atlanta Silverbacks,” McKay said.
Courtemanche said there have been no discussions between MLS and the Silverbacks.
Interestingly, the majority owner of the Silverbacks, a Brazilian company called Traffic Sports USA, put its share of the team up for sale in recent months. That’s due to an NASL mandate that it reduce the number of teams it owns.
But, Silverbacks Chairman and minority owner Boris Jerkunica said the team isn’t very interested in becoming part of MLS.
“Given the growth that the NASL is experiencing, from where we sit, it doesn’t make sense to bring another professional soccer team to Atlanta, but that is Arthur’s business,” Jerkunica said. “We are concentrating on winning the Soccer Bowl and bringing the best product to the Atlanta soccer fans at an affordable price.”
But, being a tenant at the new Falcons stadium might appeal to the Silverbacks. The team is busting out of its current stadium, leaving standing room only at recent games.
“The Silverbacks are outgrowing their 5,000-seat stadium at Atlanta Silverbacks Park,” Jerkunica said. “When and if the time comes, we would be happy to talk to Arthur about being a tenant in his new stadium. But, not as an MLS team.”
New owners would have a say in the Silverbacks’ future.
Currently, there’s no U.S. city that has both an MLS and NASL team. New York will be the first to have both, likely later this year, said NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson.
His preference also is to keep the Silverbacks with NASL, which will grow to 12 teams in 2014.
“It’s not something we need to be successful,” Peterson said. “We are focused on building our league. We think the [Silverbacks] team can grow exponentially.”
Even if Atlanta doesn’t have an MLS team, it’s still possible the new Falcons stadium could host a World Cup. Blank said throughout the stadium negotiations that he wants to host major events including the Super Bowl and World Cup.
“Atlanta would be a perfect market to host the World Cup,” Courtemanche said. “This new stadium could certainly be on a short list of venues to be considered.”