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Support & Expansion, Part II: The Curious Case Of Atlanta

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When MLS ignored its own rules to partner with Arthur Blank in Atlanta, did they forget about the soccer fans already in the city?

This is Part II of Support & Expansion; Part I is located here.

Building a Bird’s Nest

As mentioned earlier, we now know that Atlanta has been awarded the twenty-second expansion spot in MLS that will see the team starting play in 2017. Where they’ll play is perhaps more interesting a topic than the appointment of the team itself.

Arthur Blank is co-founder of handy man paradise Home Depot. He is also the owner of the NFL team Atlanta Falcons. Even before the expansion to Atlanta was announced on April 16, there has been talk of interest in Atlanta for an MLS team for some time dating back to 2008. And even if it was just whispers in the background, there was a feeling that is was just a matter of time before Atlanta would get its own MLS franchise.

Blank undoubtedly brings financial stability to Atlanta’s MLS hopes, and an owner with deep pockets is good for the league. Blank shows that he’s committed to the project of MLS in Atlanta and he’s putting his money where his mouth is, fitting the $70 million expansion fee for the club, and also plans to build a $1.2 billion artificial turf stadium that will house the Atlanta Falcons. The building will seat 65,000 sports fans and can be expanded up to 75,000. But for MLS purposes the seating will go down to about 29,000, creating what Blank and Garber have considered the stadium to be an intimate atmosphere, perfect for soccer. The stadium will also opt for artificial turf rather than natural grass, which has been a debate within MLS for years. Currently Portland, Seattle, New England and Vancouver play on artificial turf, with Montreal occasionally using the turf field of Olympic Stadium for home matches, which has been considered the worst playing surface in MLS.

Atlanta’s stadium plans leave MLS fans from around the continent scratching their heads, as it seems that Blank and his group got a different deal than other MLS teams in the past. We know that securing plans for a soccer-specific stadium has been the first thing that Major League Soccer has looked at in regards to the necessary criteria to be qualified for expansion. Arthur Blank and his Atlanta MLS group have gotten around that golden rule by housing the team in the stadium intended for the Falcons. Even non-expansion teams were pressured into building natural grass soccer specific stadiums, and that pressure led to teams hastily building in non-ideal areas. Colorado, Chicago, and New York among others, built their grounds outside of city limits and we still hear debates about whether forcing teams to build before finding an ideal spot for their stadium was good for the league. Here in Chicago, the team continues to make strides to make their stadium more easily accessible to fans in the city, but the fact remains that Bridgeview is not 'downtown Chicago.'

News of the shared stadium ruffled some feathers, especially in Florida. Orlando City first intended to play at the Citrus Bowl that was already approved for a $207 million renovation. MLS put a stop to that, saying that the Citrus Bowl - even after the scheduled renovations - would not be fit to house a team in MLS. City officials in Orlando have called Commissioner Don Garber and Major League Soccer out and accused them of being misleading and dishonest, saying that requiring Orlando to build a soccer-specific stadium but allowing Atlanta MLS to play in a football stadium is a double standard. MLS maintains that the technology that will be introduced in the new Atlanta stadium will be more than adequate for a MLS team.

Still, Orlando feels like they were misled, and there are many around MLS that agree - or at least feel that rules and business-as-usual weren't  followed by MLS. Orlando City will soon realize that the only consistency within MLS is its inconsistency. Welcome to the party.

Atlanta Phoenix and the Fight for a Fan Base

Unlike Orlando City SC, Atlanta is building their MLS franchise anew. Atlanta faces the same unique challenge that New York City FC or any other team coming into a market with a soccer footprint already established will face when they begin play in MLS. They’ll have to either foster a new set of supporters, or hope to steal support from the Atlanta Silverbacks faithful who support the NASL side. It’s already been seen that the new Atlanta MLS team may have a better chance at achieving the former than the latter.

When MLS Atlanta was announced last April, also emerging was Terminus Legion, the self-proclaimed largest supporter group in Atlanta (Atlanta Ultras also claim that title). Terminus Legion began working on MLS to Atlanta back in 2011, and in three short years saw its city awarded the soccer team it’s wanted for some time. Similar movements of supporters lobbying MLS for a team in their city worked for Philadelphia, among others. But does that then mean the Atlanta Silverbacks of the NASL are the team Atlanta didn’t want? I don’t believe so. And neither do supporters of grassroots soccer in Atlanta.

The Atlanta Ultras were founded in 2011 to support their local Atlanta Silverbacks of the NASL, and have made a name for themselves in soccer supporter culture through their raw and passionate support for their club. When MLS announced that Atlanta would be their next expansion market and would begin play in 2017, unlike the Borough Boys of New York, Atlanta Ultras were less vocal about their opinion of their new MLS side. It was clear that they held strong to their unwavering support of their own team in NASL, but there was no statement made regarding the new top-flight club in their city.

I reached out to Michael Bell, President of Atlanta Ultras in hopes to shed some light on what soccer support in Atlanta is like now that there are two clubs vying for the attention of its residents. President Bell and the Atlanta Ultras made their stance clear in a statement provided to me by Bell on behalf of the supporters group:

"We have known for a while that at some point the MLS would have a presence in Atlanta. Our reaction at first was to wait and see if our Club was in the mix, it did not take long to realize that it will be a completely new club. If we were going to support a team in the MLS, it would have to be Atlanta Silverbacks FC. Any other club that comes to our city is the opposition. We look forward to having an in-city derby for many years to come."

Because of the connection of soccer within Atlanta, there were questions on if Terminus Legion and Atlanta Ultras would have any sort of relationship moving forward. The response from Atlanta Ultras was simple:

"There is no relationship between the two."

Even then, Terminus Legion has come out and acknowledged their support for the Atlanta Silverbacks, and have said that they would attend Silverbacks matches as practice for Atlanta MLS 2017. It’s an interesting statement for Terminus Legion to make, since it’s all but expected that the supporters group would attend Silverbacks matches until MLS Atlanta is ready to kick off in 2017, then revert their attention away from NASL and back to MLS. Atlanta Ultras are welcoming of anyone who wants to support their club and are hoping new support for the Silverbacks grows.

"We have a completely different mentality when it comes to how we view support for a crest. You either support a club or you don't, you do not use one club for photo ops and publicity in order to support a completely different club. Therefore, we disagree with the way that the group has begun, however, we do not have any problems with other groups forming to support our club. Diversity is a good thing, we understand that everyone cannot be an Atlanta Ultra. We always welcome new faces that will fill the stands in support of our team. It is our hope that members of their group will fall in love with the Atlanta Silverbacks FC and support them instead of the new MLS team coming to our city."

Is This MLS 3.0?

Expansion has always been a topic of contention for MLS and the expansion model is always in question. MLS Currently has 22 of its 24 already formally announced, and with David Beckham’s MLS Miami group moving forward in looking for alternate stadium sites for his new club, we already know the identity of the 23rd club even though it doesn’t quite have a name yet. (Miami Mulligan, anyone?) Now Las Vegas has been brought up as possibly the host city for the 24th and final spot in MLS expansion. For now, anyway. Garber’s expansion committee is targeting cities with small existing sport markets. Las Vegas doesn’t have any major pro sports teams, and that market is mostly focused on collegiate athletics. Although Las Vegas could prove to be a positive move for MLS in terms of expansion fee dollars and an abundance of possible stadium sites, soccer hasn’t proven itself there and there is no guarantee there will be a fan base to receive it.

Las Vegas isn’t the only name that’s been tossed around in expansion talks. Minneapolis, Sacramento, and Detroit have all come up in the conversation. Any one of these cities might be a better fit for MLS than Miami or Las Vegas. MLS in Miami has been done before and we all know that the Fusion folded in 2001 after dismal attendance numbers despite being one of the more successful squads on field. Minneapolis, Sacramento, and Detroit all have existing soccer teams in the area in USL Pro, NASL, and NPSL. Minneapolis has a strong following of their NASL club, Minnesota United FC; Sacramento Republic started play in USL Pro this year and already have recorded sell out numbers in their 20,000+ stadium at Sacramento City College; Detroit City FC plays in the fourth division NPSL, and despite only starting play in 2012, the young team is quickly becoming the preeminent force for soccer in Michigan. In their first 3 matches at home this season, they have set consecutive attendance records at their field at Cass Tech High School which with such great attendance numbers are beginning to outgrow, and has spurred conversations of finding a larger space to play their home matches.

Don Garber and his expansion committee should take interest in the markets where soccer teams are already finding success. Expansion into MLS through promotion of successful lower division teams, much like the way Orlando City SC was granted the 21st expansion bid, is the model that gives MLS and its new clubs the greatest potential for success. A committed fan base that is already established along with the on field accomplishments that many of these clubs have already achieved is the best formula for a successful soccer franchise.

New York City FC is less than a year from playing its first match in MLS and the club still has yet to sell 3,000 season tickets as it said it would before the teams begins play, and still has no supporter group to speak of, not to mention the lack of movement on a stadium within city limits. Orlando City SC is also still working to secure their stadium site, but seem to be in a better situation to move forward with negotiations for land ongoing. Atlanta Phoenix are waiting for owner Arthur Blank to build the Falcon’s new football stadium, in which the Phoenix will also call home. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for these expansion teams in Major League Soccer, but before New York, Miami, Orlando, or Atlanta even play a match in top-flight soccer, the only club I feel are in the best position to succeed is Orlando City SC, because they’ve had support from fans and the community from the very beginning and have shown that small market teams can make it big in MLS.