By Maria Saporta
As 68,000 soccer fans filled the Georgia Dome with enthusiastic cheers Wednesday night, Arthur Blank was entertaining Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer in his suite during most of the scoreless match between Mexico and Nigeria.
It was not a casual sporting event for either of them. Blank, the owner of the Atlanta Falcons; and Garber are closing in on a deal for Blank to become a new franchise owner for a MLS team that would play in the new Falcons stadium that is supposed to open before the 2017 football season.
The sold-out Mexico-Nigeria match — a prelude the 2014 World Cup in Brazil — was yet another indicator of whether Atlanta would welcome professional soccer.
“You look at the crowd, and you see the spirit that’s here,” Blank said during a 10-minute sit-down interview in his suite during the game. “It is a great tribute to Atlanta and the appetite that Atlanta has for soccer at the highest level.
Asked about the status of his talks with MLS to buy an expansion team, Blank said: “I would say they are substantial.”
Is a deal about to be announced?
“All I will say is that the talks are substantial,” Blank said. “They have an interest in Atlanta. They love Atlanta, and we obviously know Atlanta. We are building a world-class sports facility for professional soccer. If you look at their map, there’s a huge hole in the Southeast, and Atlanta is the hub of the Southeast.”
Blank said he had told Commissioner Garber that when he and Bernie Marcus decided to launch Home Depot in Atlanta in 1978, the metro area’s population was about two million. Today it is closer to six million people, and Blank said the population could reach 10 million in the not too distant future.
“Atlanta is going to be one of the largest cities in the country,” said Blank about why it is important for MLS to have a team in the city.
Recent transactions have set the cost of acquiring an expansion soccer franchise at between $70 million to $100 million.
“They are going for what they’re going for,” Blank said. “The talks are substantial. We understand what the franchise investment would be, and I understand what it takes to build a business from scratch and what it takes to market a new team.”
Blank has had a long-standing interest in acquiring a professional soccer team, and he held talks with MLS “a number of years ago about a potential franchise in Atlanta.”
But it took the building of a new stadium that is being designed with soccer in mind to revive and intensify the talks with MLS.
Dan Courtemanche, executive vice president of communications for Major League Soccer, said that selling out the Georgia Dome on a weeknight “illustrates the opportunity” that exists in Atlanta.
“Ultimately, it’s a strong statement of the interest you have in soccer,” Courtemanche said. “It does confirm that the market exists.”
In every new market, Courtemanche said Major League Soccer looks for three criteria:
- A community needs to have a tremendous market, a great geographic location, corporate sponsors and a strong television market with a sizable population. “Clearly Atlanta meets that criteria,” he said.
- You need to have an owner with the financial resources who preferably has experience in sports and entertainment properties as well as an owner who has a passion for the sport. “Clearly Arthur has that,” Courtemanche said.
- And you have to have a stadium, preferably one that was built with soccer in mind. Construction on the new Atlanta Falcons stadium is scheduled to begin in mid April.
“Atlanta is the only top 10 market in the United States without a MLS team,” Courtemanche said. “It’s the home of some of the biggest brands in corporate brands in corporate America, and that’s extremely appealing. After tonight, there’s no doubt that top flight soccer can be successful in Atlanta.”
Atlanta has other ingredients that are important to MLS. It has a large Hispanic population, and it is a transportation center — making it accessible for fans who want to travel to Atlanta to watch a game.
For Wednesday night’s game, there were ticket buyers from 40 states. It also attracted tremendous international media attention – rivaling any other major sporting event with about 450 accredited media, most of them coming from outside the United States.
Lastly, Courtemanche said soccer is a sport that appeals to a younger audience — an enviable trend for major league sports. Part of that can be attributed to growth of youth soccer in communities throughout the country.
“The millennial generation does not know life without Major League Soccer,” Courtemanche said.
The popularity of the sport is having a far-reaching impact.
Blank said he met his girlfriend, Angela Macuga, when their sons were playing on the same soccer team.
“It’s a love rooted in soccer,” Blank said.
In early February, Blank and Macuga became engaged — two years after their first date.