Atlanta’s MLS hope may rest on new stadium

Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber said Atlanta’s hopes of one day getting an expansion franchise rest on a new stadium. Talking to reporters during a “state of the league” call on Monday ahead of Saturday’s championship game between Los Angeles and Houston, Garber said he and Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who in the past expressed an interest in starting a team in Atlanta, have had several discussions recently about the league, soccer and the city.

Right now, Garber said there’s simply no place for a team to play.

“The Falcons are looking to replace the Georgia Dome, so we wouldn’t want to play there,” Garber said. “There isn’t a college facility that makes sense. We respect what the Silverbacks have done, but that facility would be too small.

“What we’ve been focused on is should the public sector and private sector in Atlanta come together and get a new facility for the Falcons, it would allow us to continue our discussions …”

Garber is watching the ongoing debate about the possibility of constructing a new billion-dollar stadium for the Falcons with interest.

The MLS has 19 teams, but doesn’t have one in the Southeast. Garber has said his can’t be a national league until it has a team in every region.

One of the holdups in Atlanta is the lack of a suitable stadium. The Georgia Dome has hosted soccer events, but natural grass was installed for those games — an expensive proposal considering MLS teams host 17 games during the regular season, as well as exhibition games and friendlies.

The proposed new stadium will be designed to accommodate soccer, regardless of whether Blank owns a possible MLS team.

MLS has no requirements for stadium size or configuration. The league has soccer-specific stadiums, including new ones in Houston ($95 million) and Kansas City ($200 million), a team that plays in an open-air NFL stadium, Seattle, and a team that plays in a stadium with a retractable roof and synthetic grass, Vancouver.

The only requirement MLS has for stadiums is that the team’s ownership controls the venue and that they have a comprehensive plan. Blank and the Falcons may satisfy that guideline because they would pay a percentage of the stadium’s cost in what is being dubbed as a public-private project. Soccer isn’t needed to make the new stadium work financially, but it would be another revenue stream.

The Falcons hope the stadium would open in 2017, which could work with Major League Soccer’s nebulous expansion timeline.

The league is in the midst of adding a 20th team in New York. The league has no specific plans to expand beyond 20 teams, but has had exploratory discussions with several cities in the Southeast, including Orlando and Miami.

MLS seems to be flourishing in the U.S. The league recently broke the 6-million mark for the first time, an increase of almost 2 million since 2010, according to mlsattendance.blogspot.com. Average attendance for games was 18,801. By comparison, the Hawks averaged 15,199 fans in 33 home games last year.

– Doug Roberson, AJC

12 comments Add your comment

Chris Philbeck

November 27th, 2012
11:44 am

This is positive news. In a perfect world, we would see a new MLS team play in their own soccer-specific (grass field) stadium downtown with 18k-20k capacity (do we really need to replace georgia dome?). Since that seems pretty pie-in-the-sky, I am definitely willing to support any actions that get us to having our own team. I don’t see the league expanding past 24 teams in the next couple decades, so we obviously need to make sure we get in as one of the next 4 teams announced (other likely candidates being Miami, Orlando, Minnesota, Tampa, San Antonio).

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to support our own Atlanta Silverbacks. The team is in a growing league (the NASL) with an improving talent base. The games are fun and cheap with tickets ~$10.

Blazerdawg

November 27th, 2012
12:28 pm

The Chiefs drew decent crowds on occasion, but played in old Atlanta Stadium on the baseball outfield which made for an unusual seating bowl with midfield seats starting 50 feet up from the field. They drew really well for a few games at old Dekalb Memorial, which in that era was a great setting.

With 10+ Falcon games, 20+ MLS games, Peach Bowl, SEC Championship, other CFB classics, GHSA championships, and the occasional Super Bowl, this would seem to be a worthwhile project, especially if the new Dome is more integrated w downtown and if the planning can help to initiate other positive development.

Matt

November 27th, 2012
1:47 pm

I find Garber’s statement that MLS cannot be a “National” league without a SE presence to be very strange. Atlanta Silverbacks and Charleston Battery and whatever a Carolina Railhawk is have all had varying degrees of success and support in the paast. If MLS and USL/NASL could find a way to work out a relegation/promotion scheme, I believe this would be a more natural, up-from-the-grass roots, and , frankly, more interesting and possibly , more financially feasible means of expanding the league. Thoughts?

Interesting

November 27th, 2012
2:28 pm

The MLS in an NFL stadium would be a disaster here, especially if the stadium is downtown. For MLS to succeed here they need to be no further south than lindbergh area, which will bring in the latino popular near buford and the suburban soccer kids from the north. Downtown will not work. Additionally, it will be very difficult to create any atmosphere in an nfl stadium. If the Atlanta team drew the MLS average, it would seem sadly empty in a 70k plus stadium. I would love to see a team here, but a soccer specific stadium, in the right part of town, is the only way that it will succeed.

They just can't give up, can they?

November 27th, 2012
3:20 pm

This is absurd. There needs to be a publicly funded stadium for a soccer team that doesn’t exist? Is that the clincher argument?

I wionder what will the next argument for a taxpayer-funded stadium be? “We HAVE to build a new stadium – It’s for the chiiiildrenn!!!”

That’s it, folks. Arthur Blank now has a gun to our heads. If we don’t pony up $700 million for this billionaire’s little set of toys known as his own personal NFL team, Atlanta Public Schools will fail. Seriously. They’re not kidding this time – they’ve got weapons – we’d better fund this stadium or else.

Kashi

November 27th, 2012
3:44 pm

MLS stadium in a closed GM Doraville plant. Easy access to I-85 and I-285 plus heavly latino population.

Knockahoma

November 28th, 2012
2:05 am

@Matt-Love the idea of the leagues coming together to create a promotion/relegation system. I’m not sure if this would be a popular sentiment with other MLS owners who might shudder at the thought of their pricey team being relegated to an inferior league.

However, I dream of a future where there are enough teams to split the league into regions and have a set up fashioned after the European Leagues into the champions league.

First thing’s first. We need to get a team here.

Silver Creek Dawg

November 28th, 2012
9:06 am

I could see MLS putting a team in the new Falcons stadium, but only if it’s like Reliant Stadium in Houston (retractable roof with a grass playing surface).

I do think the old GM site would be great too, but that’s awful close to Silverbacks Park and I don’t think either side would be comfortable with that proximity.

KSUAlum

November 28th, 2012
10:16 am

Kennesaw State has a great new soccer-only (for now) facility up i-75. No, it does not seat 18,000 (I think max right now is like 6-7,000), but it could certainly be expanded to accomodate more fans – and for MUCH less cost than a brand new facility downtown, where no one wants to go anyway.

KSUAlum

November 28th, 2012
10:20 am

Though as a soccer fan, I would love to see MLS develop a relegation/promotion system, it’s one of the things that keeps me watching English Premier League.

Interesting

November 28th, 2012
1:54 pm

I dont think downtown would be the best location, but far, far more people go downtown than Kennesaw.

El Duderino

November 28th, 2012
7:49 pm

Excellent news. If the Whitecaps can play in a dome with fake turf, couldn’t our MLS team start up in the Georgia Dome after the new stadium deal is announced? 2017 is a long way off. (I am digging Silverbacks games in the meantime though. And yes, what the heck is a Railhawk? Some mythical creature dreamed up by a redneck on crystal meth?)