A response to the claim that an Atlanta MLS team would be a mistake

We all knew that this moment would happen one day. The momentum for a Major League Soccer team in Atlanta would reach a point where someone would say “it won’t work” or “it’s a mistake”. I’ve been waiting for this moment to defend this city and show that this city could support a very successful MLS team. Today, I came across Jeremiah Oshan’s article claiming that MLS Expansion to Atlanta would be a mistake. In it, someone who lives over 2000 miles away spews the same tired cliches often cited about Atlanta and uses them to declare that we don’t deserve a team.

The first thing you realize about the article is that there is actually a lot of positive facts mentioned about factors that could lead to a successful team. Large market. New stadium. Interested owner. The problem is that the article strays away from these facts and makes biased assumptions that are unfounded and untrue then somehow extrapolates a conclusion based on these erroneous assumptions. Since I am a marketing analyst, there is a huge difference in my world between facts and data versus assumptions and opinions. In this response, I will try to provide data and facts where they are available, insights into my experience in my efforts to bring a Major League Soccer team to Atlanta, and when necessary, I will highlight an uncertainty in assumptions I use. I must also mention, as anyone who is involved in betting or analytics knows, predicting the future based on past events is a dangerous game to play.

First, let’s review the overall point of the article. It’s no secret that Atlanta is gaining momentum to be the next expansion team in Major League Soccer. With an actual stadium breaking ground in weeks and an interested investor willing and able to fund the team, Atlanta is in many ways farther along then the recently announced Miami team still seeking investors and a stadium location. Since SBnation, the source of this article is a content aggregation site seeking to maximize page views, I think it’s telling to look at two of the possible titles they used for the article in a way to maximize clicks.

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“MLS expansion to Atlanta would be a mistake” and “Atlanta is not ready for MLS” are two COMPLETELY different meanings, yet are somehow the two titles used as the headline for this article. I’m not trying to make a point about taking creative licenses when making a headline, but instead I’m trying to show that from the start, this article was meant to be anti-Atlanta in an attempt to get page views. I actually would have been okay with the “Atlanta is not ready” headline if the author mentioned in the article goals or achievements that would suddenly qualify the city as being “ready” and “deserving” of a team. Instead, a much more definitive, complete stance is taken, all while using myth and assumptions to support the argument.

The article uses a few assumptions to support the claim that MLS expansion will not work in Atlanta. We’ll go through each, one-by-one, as I feel that each needs to be addressed.

…an ownership that doesn’t seem particularly interested in making soccer their main focus.

I see this being one of the major doubts regarding the success of a team. Somehow, people think that after spending a rumored $80 million dollars on an expansion fee and hundreds of million dollars on a new stadium, Arthur Blank is going to step back, wipe his hands, shrug his shoulders and proclaim his work as done. Mr. Blank is a very smart man. He rejuvenated the Falcons franchise that was a joke when he purchased them in 2002 for $545 million. Today, they are now worth an approximate $933 million according to Forbes after some really effective rebranding and marketing. Mr. Blank will be making an investment by starting this team and it’s safe to say he will do everything he can to make the team to successful. His track record is pretty damn good and any assumptions that he won’t care are misinformed and unfounded.

…there’s really no reason to think he’s going to be particularly engaged in the league.

To add on to the previous paragraph, how can we make any assumptions regarding his involvement? From people who are close to him, he is very involved in soccer with many of his grandchildren playing soccer as their primary sport. Using Robert Kraft as a comparison is just pointless and irrelevant. I can see where the comparison is being made because both owners also own an NFL team and both teams share a stadium with that team. Truth is, you can’t judge Blank as an owner based on the failures of a different owner. Especially when the stadium situations will be completely different with Atlanta’s new stadium being located downtown and configurable to a soccer-sized capacity. I’m not going to stand here and say with certainty that Arthur Blank will give the team 100% focus and dedication, but I believe that as a businessman, he is going to give it the attention and investment required for it to succeed.

Next, the author continues to make a comparison between teams that have “other interests” yet again decides to focus on the one negative comparison…

As suitable as this new Atlanta stadium may be for soccer — it will apparently be able to be reconfigured to allow for a proper pitch and the upper deck will be closed to give it a more intimate feel — there just aren’t very many good examples of MLS and professional football teams peacefully coexisting. The Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps are the best examples of teams that are doing a pretty good job of making the situation work. Both teams play in downtown stadiums on fields that were designed with soccer in mind. Kraft’s New England Revolution are the prime counter-example, as they routinely play on gridiron lines and there’s virtually no attempt to hide the fact that the New England Patriots are the stadium’s primary tenants.

So let me get this straight: two-thirds of teams mentioned in the article do a “pretty good job of making the situation work”, yet there aren’t “very many good examples of MLS and professional football peacefully coexisting”. Again, a stretched comparison is made to Robert Kraft’s ownership even though Atlanta will actually play in a “downtown stadium designed with soccer in mind” that apparently is a factor to success.

It’s true that Atlanta also can trace its professional soccer history back to the NASL days, but the market has experienced virtually no success at the turnstile. In a history that includes two separate NASL teams, women’s teams that played in the WUSA and WPS and men’s teams that have competed in various lower divisions since 1995, none of them have ever managed to draw average crowds of as many as 7,500. There’s also virtually no United States national team history in Atlanta, where the men’s team hasn’t played since 1977 and the biggest crowd to ever watch the women play was the 14,652 that saw them play Japan in the run-up to the 1999 World Cup.

Are we really using attendances from the 70′s, women’s games, and the fact that the US national team has never played in Atlanta as evidence that a Major League Soccer team will fail in Atlanta? Are we just going to ignore the fact that two of the top six highest attendances ever recorded for US Women’s soccer was in the Atlanta area? Or the 55,000 fans who showed up for the Gold Cup semifinals in 2013? Numerous club friendlies have been sold out in the Georgia Dome and back when the NASL had an indoor soccer league, Atlanta led the league in attendance. Now, none of this means that a team in Atlanta is guaranteed success, but I am just showing that there are data points and evidence that can be used to argue any side of the debate.

But here comes the clincher…

As if all of this weren’t daunting enough, Atlanta’s sports fans are notoriously fickle. The NBA’s Hawks are perpetually in the bottom third of attendance and the NHL’s Thrashers’ attendance was so bad that they eventually moved to Winnipeg just 12 years after being granted an expansion franchise and playing in a purpose-built arena. The NFL’s Falcons and Major League Baseball’s Braves draw reasonably well now, but were both poor draws before moving out of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

Here we go again. I’m not going to pretend that Atlanta has the best fans in the country, but the bad reputation we get is undeserved. Atlanta, like every city, is filled with some great sports moments as well as some embarrassments. It’s comical that the author chooses to point out the current situation for the under-supported Hawks, yet somehow, for the well-supported Braves and Falcons, brings up attendances from 20 years ago in a previous stadium to support his argument.

As a diehard Thrashers fan, allow me to take a minute to defend our fanbase. The uninformed enjoy bringing this up as a slight to the Atlanta market. The actual truth is something that the author brings up as his biggest concern about Arthur Blank as owner: uninterested ownership. The Atlanta Spirit Group bought the Atlanta Thrashers along with Philips Arena and the Atlanta Hawks in 2005. Considering that in our 12-year history, the Thrashers only made the playoffs once (which is sad considering that half the teams in the NHL make the playoffs), it should shock no one that the Thrashers were never embraced by the casual fan in the crowded market. The only season the Thrashers saw success, 2006-2007, they had the 21st highest attendance and both playoff games were packed with one of the most passionate crowds I’ve ever seen (including high profile college football, US Soccer, and even EPL games). Within a couple of years, the payroll was slashed, the star players were traded, and the owners were suing each other. Not surprisingly, the under-supported Hawks are owned by the same ownership group.

On a side note, it’s interesting that the author chooses to use the term “purpose built” for an arena shared by the Hawks and Thrashers after questioning the ability of a stadium split among NFL and MLS teams.

Now that we’ve responded to each assumption and comparison made in the article, let’s take a step back and look at another comparison we can make. There’s a team in Major League Soccer who is partly owned by an NFL owner, plays in an NFL stadium, lost a professional team in a different sport and had an average attendance of 3340 for their USL Pro team in the four seasons before they moved up to MLS. I’m sure a writer could easily have used this information to claim that MLS expansion would fail in this city, but they would have been very wrong. The city I am talking about is Seattle, and the Sounders are known for having the best support in the league.

My point isn’t that Atlanta will have the same support as Seattle, but instead that comparisons and data points can be used to support any opinion. I just hope that as the eyes of Major League Soccer are now looking upon the city of Atlanta, the debate about this city and the future success of a team is based on facts and reason instead of erroneous assumptions and stretched comparisons.

I’m well aware that there’s a lot of people around the country who believe, for whatever reason, that Atlanta will be a failure. We can argue for hours about the pros and cons about a team in Atlanta, but the truth is we won’t really know until it’s a few years in and we can sit back and see how attendance, on-field success, and passionate support compares to the other teams in the league.

I know that I will do everything in my power to prove anyone who doubts this team and our city wrong. I’m looking forward to it.

-Matt Stigall
President, Terminus Legion

15 Comments

  1. Spot on Matt!!! The guy who wrote the article obviously doesnt know half as much about MLS as he thinks he does. Great job refuting all of his incredibly flawed points. ATLANT WILL HAVE MLS!!!

  2. Well said Matt. I began reading your response with the intention of playing Devil’s Advocate ( just a hobby of mine ). While I do believe Atlanta is going to be successful with the eventual MLS team, I have some concerns. Reading Mr. Oshan’s comments reminded me of those issues. He, however, approached the topic in a manner that was fairly well detached from the actual situation in this city, relying on fuzzy data and common cliches to make a point. I thought you did an excellent job of presenting facts “from the ground” to counter his argument. So, the only type of advocate I will be playing today is a genuine advocate of Terminus Legion!

    • Thanks, Joe! I tried to be balanced and I’m well aware that making Atlanta’s support as passionate as Seattle or Portland will be a challenge. I, and other Terminus Legion volunteers, are looking forward to overcoming these challenges and providing the most passionate support in the league.

      • Seattle and Portland are the elite in MLS supporters, but who says we can’t be top 5? And that is our goal to be at least talked about in the same paragraph as them. (in my heart I would love to be bigger than them.) So lets prove all our doubters wrong, lets show them what ATL is really about.

  3. I wrote an open letter to the NHL a few years back that has some stats about NHL in Atlanta. This debunks the erroneous “facts” about our fan base and can be found at http://www.mer-itocracy.com/?p=293.

    As an aside about Arthur Blank, he does have family members who play youth soccer and can, apparently, often be found out at the fields up Cobb County way.

  4. This is great. You made some excellent points and I honestly do believe that the MLS will be viable in Atlanta and will be successful, because Arthur Blank isn’t going to go into things half-hearted, he’ll put forth the money and time to make it successful. I also think that the other article you referenced, Matt, actually uses facts that support Atlanta as a suitable option for MLS than it does degrade Atlanta’s status as an MLS city. Well done, and I can’t wait to help support Terminus Legion and continue its growth.

  5. Matt, I think you made some good points, but both you and the author never focused on some other details that should be seriously considered, like demographics. Atlanta is a city that has been “Yank-ified.” Every day I drive down GA-400 gridlock to get to work, and do you know how many sports teams stickers I see, that *are not* from Atlanta? I won’t deny it, I hate the Falcons because I am a Bills fan. I am not from “the South.” Now, one could argue that a new franchise, in a still relatively new league could actually harmonize Atlanta’s fan base which consist of many transplants. That would be great! Also, Atlanta has many non-European immigrants, like Africans, who love soccer, not to mention quite a few hispanics. Yet what still bothers me, and I hope I am wrong, is the never-ending story of Atlanta’s HORRIBLE infrastructure!!! Have you ever seen BART in San Fran, the “EL” in Chicago, or the Metro in D.C.? Compare those transit systems to MARTA, which has barely changed in twenty years, still resembling a cross north-south and east-west….mostly used for the airport. Will people go downtown during the week or weekend to see these games? I don’t know the answer, but it should be discussed…I mean, the Braves are moving out of downtown!?!? I can’t imagine the amount of new gridlock the stadium in Cobb County will create! Atlanta’s roads and transit are pretty bad, and we do not have a downtown like Chicago, NY, or any of the older cities that built up, instead of a suburban sprawl. Downtown…..is really anything within I-285….and that makes it tough to get to a game. I think MLS could be successful in Atlanta, but they should build a smaller stadium, and not put it in the dicey downtown areas….. These are just thoughts….and concerns…. I did go to the 2013 Gold Cup and loved it, and I would love an MLS team…but any pro team is hard to have in a poorly planned suburban sprawl of a city…….

  6. You can see it on MLSsoccer.com. The Seattle Sounders are parting ways with the Seattle Seahawks…..

    I wonder if this will call using football stadiums into question again, and thus Atlanta in question….?

  7. Good points on all this. I just moved to Atlanta this week and have my roots to DC United… it’s going to be a tough switch, but I’ll have 3 years to work on it :)

    One thing that’s apparent to me after being a Screaming Eagle and also working professionally with a couple sports teams is that there are 4 things you need to offer fans to make attendance great (and make the team successful as a business):

    (1) a great team, or having the front office investing in top-quality players – just look at the Miami HEAT attendance…
    (2) an appropriate stadium – poor DC United and RFK or the Rev’s playing in the middle of nowhere on football lines…
    (3) a great community – fan clubs singing as one, companies sponsoring tailgates, community/charity events all help build a ‘tribe mentality’ that people want to be a part of naturally… going to a movie then going home versus going and hanging out with family for a cause is a no brainer to me
    (4) great value – when i compare spending $100/ 2 people to go to a game w/ gate, great seats, 2 beers each and a tailgate before versus going out to dinner for 2, i’m much more likely to be losing my voice in the stadium

    There are probably many different things that can help or hinder, but these 4 things are what I’ve found pretty substantial. The Terminus Legion can help on all 4 of these which will make building things with you all a blast!

  8. The key will be to integrate the whole southeast: name, marketing, brand. This team has a HUGE range to market, from North Carolina to Mississippi, from north Florida to KENTUCKY! If it can’t find a way to lock in this market like the Braves have, you’ll see another team pop up in North Carolina to compete for a piece of that big pie.

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