Falcons owner Arthur Blank is in significant discussions with Major League Soccer about bringing an expansion franchise to Atlanta.
Blank has long expressed an interest in owning a team. The recent approval of the new stadium for the Falcons accelerated the talks between Blank and the league, according to two people with knowledge of the situation who wished to remain anonymous because the discussions aren’t complete.
The construction of the stadium is scheduled to be finished in 2017, and the two parties have discussed opening the facility with an MLS game featuring the expansion team when the season begins in March. Included in the contracts for the Falcons’ new stadium are provisions for a yet-to-be-established MLS team.
“We are in early discussions with MLS,” said Kim Shreckengost, a Blank representative, “but anything related to when or if a team would be fielded and/or at what price is very speculative and unknown at this time. It will take some time to work through the process.”
The league wants to add four expansion franchises between 2015-20, which would bring it to 24 teams. Commissioner Don Garber told the Canadian sports network TSN on Wednesday that three of the four franchises “are spoken for.” New York will be the league’s 20th team. That franchise is scheduled to start in 2015 and isn’t considered one of the four new franchises. Its owners paid a reported expansion fee of $100 million to join, $60 million more than was paid by Montreal a few years earlier.
One of the people who wished to remain anonymous said Atlanta’s expansion fee likely would be closer to $100 million.
Atlanta has long been considered a possible spot for an expansion team because it is a top-10 media market of more than 5 million people, and soccer is popular in the area.
The Georgia Dome has hosted several international soccer events in the past few years, including a doubleheader in the Gold Cup quarterfinals in July that drew more than 50,000 fans. The city also was included as a possible host site for games in the failed bid to bring the 2022 World Cup to the United States.
An expansion team in Atlanta could satisfy the needs of the league and those paying for the new stadium.
MLS doesn’t have a franchise in the Southeast. Garber has repeatedly said that his league can’t be considered national until it has a team in the region.
Bringing in a franchise as a full owner or as part of an ownership group would add revenue streams for Blank, who is paying a portion of the cost of the stadium. The cost of stadium is projected to be around $1 billion.
Hosting games would provide revenue, and MLS teams play 34 regular-season games, with 17 at home. The teams also play exhibition games and can participate in international tournaments that would bring more home dates. Teams also may be eligible to host games for the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams. Games during the U.S. World Cup qualifying run have been hosted by cities that have MLS teams.
To further understand the possible financial impact, consider that Seattle leads the league in attendance, with an average of more than 42,000 fans. Chivas USA, one of two teams based in Los Angeles, ranks last in the league with an average of slightly less than 8,500 fans.
The league average is 18,319 through Sept. 9, with stadiums at 86-percent capacity, according to the website mlsattendance.blogspot.com. By comparison, Chicago led the NBA in average home attendance (21,876) for the 2012-13 season.
In the past, some members of the Atlanta Soccer Cabinet, a group of business leaders who are focused on how the sport can help business in the city, have said they could see Atlanta replicating the success that Seattle has experienced while hosting games at CenturyLink Field, which is also the home of the NFL’s Seahawks.
Soccer has a long history in the city, beginning with the Chiefs in 1967. The city currently is the home of the Silverbacks, which play in the NASL.