By Maria Saporta and Collin Huguley
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Aug. 3, 2018
Atlanta’s hosting of the 2018 MLS All-Star Game on Aug. 1 is a prelude to the city’s dreams of welcoming the World Cup in 2026.
In a few short years, Atlanta has become a true soccer town, fueled by the excitement of the successful launch of its Major League Soccer franchise, Atlanta United.
The team’s presence in Atlanta is playing a major role in recruiting global companies to the city, and it is helping solidify Atlanta’s brand as an international city.
“It’s just crazy we are hosting the All-Star game here in Atlanta when four years ago, we didn’t even have a team,” said Darren Eales, president of Atlanta United, at a community event unveiling one of 10 mini-pitches at Anderson Park in west Atlanta on July 30.
Around the league, the success of Atlanta United is being called a phenomenon. It leads MLS attendance with more than 51,000 fans per game. It also had more than 72,000 fans for the match against Seattle on July 15 – the same day as the 2018 World Cup Final in Moscow.
“There is clearly a phenomenon that is Atlanta and soccer,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber in an interview. “I think Atlanta is a real hotbed for the sport and has earned the right to be considered as one of the real focal points of the sport in North America today.”
Garber remembered when Arthur Blank was vying for an MLS franchise and telling the commissioner that he believed Atlanta would become one of the top soccer markets in the world.
“We are going to show you that we can break every record,” Garber quoted Blank as saying. “And he’s done just that both on and off the field. They are just setting records every week… They are doing wonderful things here. It has served as a real showcase for our league and really has established a new bar for expansion in MLS.”
Garber said he hopes Atlanta will be selected as a venue for the 2026 World Cup.
“It certainly helps that the World Cup will be played in the summer and we have a climate-controlled facility,” said Garber, who called the Mercedes-Benz Stadium “an unbelievable building that will never go out of style and never be dated.”
For Eales, the first test has been Atlanta United’s success during its second season. The first season, Atlanta United’s average attendance was about 47,000, and people questioned whether it was because the team was the city’s “shiny new object,” Eales said. But the second season is showing continued growth with Atlanta United’s average attendance expected to top 53,000.
“The important thing for us is never to take our fans for granted,” Eales said. “So we’ve built the club around a great team on the field, so a winning experience for the team. We’re doing a good job at the moment on that. But, we’ve got to keep it going because we haven’t won a trophy yet. All we’ve done is have some success for an expansion team.”
The 2026 World Cup will be another marker. When North America won the bid to host the 2026 World Cup, Atlanta was prominently featured in the video that was shown at the FIFA convention before the vote.
“You can’t pretend anymore that America doesn’t get soccer. We’ve shown in Atlanta that we get soccer,” Eales said. “For me, the big thing now is can we get the semifinal game? Can we get the media center based in Atlanta? All of those things where we are the soccer city of America to firmly put us on the map come 2026 would be fantastic.”
Eales said Atlanta won’t know whether it has won the semi-final game or the media center until 2020, but he believes the city’s chances are good given the stadium, the fan base and the Atlanta’s experience in hosting major sporting events – the Olympics, the Super Bowl, the Final Four and College Football championships.
“We can’t rest on our laurels, but I’d be really disappointed if we don’t end up with the semifinal,” said Eales, who added that Atlanta is in a great position to get the media center because of the airport and its connections to the rest of the world.
Hala Moddelmog, president and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said Atlanta United has created a “halo” for the city.
“How cool that we have Atlanta United and the most popular sport in the world right here,” Moddelmog said. “It’s a factor in recruiting all companies here – not just international ones – because it speaks to diversity, youth and excitement.”
Doug Shipman, president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, is a member of the Founder’s Club of Atlanta United as well as a season ticket holder and avid fan.
The Atlanta United phenomenon can be explained when considering the city’s checkered history with professional sports. All of its existing pro-teams, with the exception of Atlanta United, have moved here from another city.
“This is the first time in two generations that Atlantans have been on the front end of establishing a sports franchise,” Shipman said. “There’s a founder’s syndrome. A lot of people feel as though they’ve been a part of building the team. Atlanta in the 1960s and 1970s only had one million to two million people. You have given all these new Atlantans something they have helped build.”
The new Atlantans also can be United fans while being loyal to their hometown teams – whether the New England Patriots or the Chicago Cubs.
“What Atlanta United has done so well is create an atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable – old, young with ethnic and racial diversity,” Shipman said highlighting how the team has actively embraced the city’s hip-hop culture. “It feels both diverse and grounded in Atlanta’s unique identity.”
Shipman, who was the founding CEO of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, said Atlanta United also is changing Atlanta’s brand by “showcasing the broad array of diversity in Atlanta for the world.” That diversity exists among the players, Atlanta United’s executives as well as the fans.
“We have always considered ourselves an international city, but this is a true expression of how international we are,” Shipman said. “Darren Eales has said we are trying to build a club that will be a competitor on the world soccer stage. With the 2026 World Cup coming to North America, Atlanta will, in all likelihood, play a major role for the next eight years in the build-up to the World Cup. That will give the sport momentum in Atlanta.”
Eales, who moved here four years ago, calls Atlanta the “Hidden Gem of North America,” overshadowed by New York and Los Angeles.
“Atlanta is a wonderful city,” Eales said. “What we’ve done with Atlanta United and the crowds we’re getting is resonating around the world. I think it is showcasing this city for what it is, which is a bright, vibrant, diverse, exciting, growing city that is really the center of the soccer world in North America, and it is reaching out towards all of the other countries…. The World Cup in 2026 is just another chance for us to showcase the city.”