Arthur Blank

Atlanta, MLS don’t need to quiet doubts to be successful in the Southeast


Major League Soccer’s worst kept secret was its interest in Atlanta. As Don Garber’s reflex response goes, the league has been interested in the city for over a decade. Not only does it give MLS a coveted spot in the abandoned Southeast, but it represents a location that hasn’t failed before. Going into Florida? There’s a history there. In Atlanta, MLS can write its own.

Miami may be the capital of Latin America, but Atlanta is the center of the South. If MLS is going to go challenge the notion that professional soccer can’t gain a foothold in the region, it has to succeed in ‘The ATL’ – a focal point that can promote the sector’s link to the rest of the country. Without it, the two Florida franchises (Orlando and David Beckham’s eventual team in Miami) are left on an island, one that could sink once more.

It’s an endeavor that stares skeptics’ two main assumptions in the face – notions that also apply to the potential Miami franchise: First, that the cities are not a “good sports towns”; and second, MLS’s history says it can not succeed in the Southeast.

The funny part about the first it that there’s no clear standard for evaluating what is and is not a good sports town. And whatever standards you do hear? They’re probably completely inapplicable to Major League Soccer.

Critics will point out there’s a lack of excitement for the Dolphins and Marlins in Miami, the Hawks and Braves in Atlanta, but it’s not as if those teams are going out of business. Even the Marlins, at this point, are a well-established part of their city’s landscape. By Major League Soccer standards, those franchises are outrageous successes. If Miami and Atlanta are bad sports towns, it’s only relative to a lofty, irrelevant standard that shouldn’t apply to MLS.

Plus, as Blank alluded to in today’s press conference, the extent to which you can look at a football, basketball, or baseball franchise and see MLS’s future is a dubious one. According to the new MLS owner (citing information relayed to him by Seattle’s ownership), only three percent of Sounders season ticket holders do the same with the Seahawks. If you’re looking to NFL-ledd MLS teams as a means of evaluating Atlanta’s potential, here’s actually very little overlap between NFL customers and potential soccer supporters. As we’ve known for some time, soccer fans are a distinct type of customer, one that’s more likely to be reached with a distinct approach.

Perhaps paradoxically, that’s where Blank’s NFL organization can help. As those around Seattle recently noted as the Sounders severed business ties with the Seahawks, being linked to a huge, established organization likely helped the Sounders’ unprecedented growth. It gave the franchise a large machine capable of leveraging its experience in a way that took advantage of any opportunity for growth. Given the Falcons’ presence in Atlanta, Blank may be able to do the same.

Does that make Atlanta a good sport market? No, but it’s also unclear what a good sports market is. If having franchises like the Braves and Dolphins mean a city doest care about sports, maybe we’re too idealistic about what represents success in this realm. And if the doubters’ argument is that places like Salt Lake, Columbus, Santa Clara, Portland — small cities where MLS is already successful — represent better opportunities than the city with the 15th largest economy in the world, the standard is broken. MLS doesn’t need to win over the whole town. A small slice of the pie will work.

Critics, however, are also skeptical of MLS’s ability to penetrate the market, usually citing the region’s sports culture and MLS’s previous failures as reason to believe another Southeast excursion will fail. But if there’s one thing we know about Major League Soccer, it’s that the league is nothing like it was in 2001. Pointing to anything the league did at age six as an example of what it’s capable of at age 19 ignores the league’s trajectory.

The Miami Fusion ceased operations in 2001, but a group led by David Beckham are hoping to secure a stadium that will allow a new team to play by 2017, the same year Atlanta will come into Major League Soccer.

By now, MLS is a totally different organism. It’s bigger and far more stable that it was in 2001, when a small group of owners were faced with the task to keeping the two Florida franchises afloat. MLS, struggling for its mere survival, didn’t have the resources back then. Overly reliant on Phil Anschutz and Lamar Hunt, the league couldn’t wait out teams’ slow starts.

But now, with the resources people like Blank, Beckham, and Manchester City’s ownership can throw behind new franchises, there’s no reason to expect those slow starts. Instead, these teams will try to hit the ground running, if not on the field than off. If they hit speed bumps, a large group of diverse owners can leverage to decades of lessons to promote the teams’ survival.

That’s not to say Atlanta, Miami, Orlando … New York or franchise no. 24 will succeed. Instead, it’s important to realize the league’s 1996-2001 track record is irrelevant. Different owners with different goals had different tools, none of which will be used in the MLS’s latest attempt to tackle the Southeast. Instead, a sport that’s made significant gains in national relevance over the last 13 years will take another shot, with new minds and new capabilities leading the charge.

If soccer in the Southeast fails, it won’t be for the same reasons Tampa Bay and Miami. And it probably won’t be because Atlanta and the Magic City aren’t Good Sports Towns. Major League Soccer doesn’t necessarily need GSTs to succeed.

It needs good owners. It needs people who have ideas that can help franchises identify that sliver of local support that will sustain the team. It needs a growing game and a vibrant league to give the teams a bigger, more relevant context. Right now, it just needs 20,000-or-so people to want to come to games.

It doesn’t need to make people forget the Mutiny and Fusion, and it doesn’t need to prove Atlanta and Miami are GSTs. All MLS needs to capture each city’s underserved soccer market. Even if that doesn’t push the Heat or Falcons on the back burner, it will be enough to allow address those doubts.

VIDEO: USMNT’s Johnson scores stunning goal in UCL

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U.S. men’s national team star Fabian Johnson put the icing on the cake for Borussia Monchendgladbach against Sevilla on Wednesday.

Johnson, 27, cut inside and hit a dipping, curling shot into the far corner to give Monchengladbach a 2-0 lead late on and give themselves a great chance of finishing third in Group D and qualifying for the Europa League.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]  

The German-American cleared up his differences with USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann after being sent home following the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico in October, and in this type of form he has proven why Klinsmann has recently played him in a left-wing role for the U.S. instead of at full back.

Watch the video below to see Johnson’s superb strike, his second UCL goal in as many games and the second of his career.

VIDEO: Zlatan marks homecoming to his boyhood club with a goal

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
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Zlatan Ibrahimovic has marked his homecoming to his boyhood club, Malmo FF in Sweden, with a goal (below video) for Paris Saint-Germain in the UEFA Champions League.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

The goal put the Parisians 3-0 ahead, but the story on the night is all about Ibrahimovic, who left the club in 2001 for Ajax, and upon his return this week paid out of his own pocket for the game to be shown in the main city square. Tickets for the event sold out in less than 30 minutes.

Ibrahimovic, on his return and what the city of Malmo still means to him — quotes from the Guardian:

“I am from Malmo, wherever I go I am representing Malmo. I have become who I am because of Malmo. Everything started in Malmo and I feel like a Malmo lad. I move in a Malmo way and I think I talk in a Malmo way. Everything is Malmo for me. It was there I went to school, there I was spending time with my friends, there I played silly pranks. That is where I was free. The ‘proper stuff’ hadn’t started yet. That is where my story is. Somewhere inside me that is still my team, even if I represent PSG, Juventus or the other clubs. Malmo is still my team, there is no other one for me.”

VIDEO: Bale, Ronaldo combine to get Real back on track

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After the demoralizing demolition at the hands of their bitter rivals Barcelona at the weekend, Real Madrid responded positively in UEFA Champions League play.

[ MORE: Ronaldo to United? ]

With Real’s passage to the last 16 of the UCL already secured and top spot in Group A sewn up, under pressure manager Rafael Benites mixed things up as he made seven changes to the team that was humiliated by Barca.

Two of Real’s superstars were in the starting lineup against Shakthar Donetsk in Lviv with Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo combining in the first half to put Real ahead.

Watch the video below to see Luka Modric’s marvelous ball play in Bale and his cross was nodded over the line by Ronaldo as the Portuguese star netted his 84h UCL goal.

FOLLOW LIVE: UEFA Champions League Wednesday fixtures

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK - NOVEMBER 17:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Sweden celebrates after the UEFA EURO 2016 Qualifier Play-Off Second Leg match between Denmark and Sweden at Parken Stadium on November 17, 2015 in Copenhagen, Denmark.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Yesterday’s Champions League slate brought us the return of Lionel Messi to the field, and he exploded back onto the scene in only a way that Messi can. Today features another return, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic comes home.

PSG heads to Sweden as Zlatan comes back to his boyhood, hometown club of Malmo, kicking at 2:45 P.M. ET. Zlatan isn’t one to dish out compliments to opponents very often, but he had nothing but gushing praise for the club that kickstarted his career.

“I have become who I am because of Malmo,” Zlatan told the Malmo official website. “Everything started in Malmo and I feel like a Malmo lad. I move in a Malmo way and I think I talk in a Malmo way. Everything is Malmo for me.” He also hopes to score a hat-trick and have the home fans chant his name.

[ FOLLOW LIVE – Champions League Wednesday fixtures ]

A win for PSG along with a Shakhtar Donetsk loss would progress both Real Madrid and the French club into the knockout stages.

Elsewhere, Manchester City travels to Juventus looking to solidify their hold on the top spot in Group D. City has been unlucky with their group stage draws in recent years, but they could snatch the top spot in the group this year should they win today. The Italians are just a point behind, and could go top of the group with a win of their own.

The aforementioned Blancos of Real Madrid travels to Ukraine to take on Shakhtar Donetsk. Real Madrid is already guaranteed a spot in the knockout rounds, but a win would secure them the top spot in the group with PSG three points behind.

Manchester United welcomes PSV Eindhoven to Old Trafford with the Group B still entirely in flux. A win for Wolfsburg earlier today over CSKA Moscow put them ahead, but the Red Devils could snatch that top spot back with a win. Should Louis Van Gaal and company falter, they would drop out of a knockout stage spot, as PSV sits just one point back of them in third.

Finally, Atletico Madrid hosts Galatasaray in a very important match in the middle of Group C. Sevilla tops the group with 10 points, but with Atletico behind them at seven points and Galatasaray on four, Atletico could secure themselves a knockout round berth with the three points, while a win for the Turks would leave things totally up for grabs.

One more final score from earlier today, Benfica drew Astana 2-2 in Kazakhstan, leaving them just three points ahead of Atletico Madrid atop Group C.