Though speaking by phone from his office, the energy and excitement that Arthur Blank feels about Atlanta United’s opening game came through as the noise of his hand hitting his desk as he emphasized his points again and again.
It’s been almost 15 years since Blank first considered buying a franchise in MLS. It’s been almost three years since the moment when league commissioner Don Garber shook Blank’s hand to symbolically seal the deal in a packed banquet room overlooking Centennial Olympic Park.
The franchise will try for its first three points against the New York Red Bulls at 7:30 p.m. in front of a capacity crowd of 55,000 at Bobby Dodd Stadium on the Georgia Tech campus. Garber will be in attendance for the historic moment.
“I’m very excited about Sunday,” Blank said, the thump of his hand slapping his desk coming through. “I couldn’t be more excited.”
Blank spent 20 minutes Thursday discussing his expectations for the team, the growing popularity of MLS, and his interest in helping the U.S. land the 2026 World Cup. Questions and answers have been edited and/or paraphrased in some instances for clarity.
Q: This process started for you long before 2014. Now that the first game is here, what are your emotions?
A: For Atlanta, my expectations are extraordinarily high. I’m so enthused that we are able to bring this professional soccer team to the city. I think we are doing this right. Typically, that’s the way we run all of our businesses.
We’ve brought in the very best people, Darren (Eales, team president), Carlos (Bocanegra, technical director), Ann (Rodriguez, vice president) and ‘Tata’ (Gerardo Martino, manager) and brought them in early. We’ve tried to do this with as much foresight as we can. Planning far enough in advance and making the investment so people can make the right decisions on a timely basis so that they can do their research and not just put a team together.
I’ve said this so often: It’s incredible how much passion there for this team in Atlanta. Every place I go. As much passion as I see and feel for the Falcons, I can see and feel it for our soccer franchise. It’s great. I couldn’t be happier.
We are following the same model we did with the Falcons. We want to have a winning team on the field, in this case the pitch, and a team that represents us well in the community when they aren’t playing. We also want to create a great fan experience at Bobby Dodd Stadium and then at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Q: You’ve said you bought the Falcons for the city and Atlanta United for your family. Does that result in different approaches as an owner? If so, how and why?
A: I bought (Atlanta United) and (the Falcons) for the same reason. In this case, my wife and two of her children are heavily involved in soccer. My son, Joshua, always is.
It represents a core interest we have, a core interest in the community. It’s a commitment to youth that we feel is important to our foundation’s work and our life’s work. It’s about giving back to Atlanta in any way that we can.
Can we make it into a good business? Yes, but we don’t define our success from a business perspective.
If we have a competitive team, with the right staff and players, and community involvement I mentioned earlier, and provide a great fan experience — the same things we did with the Falcons — we will be successful.
It’s not driven by economics, not driven by family. The fact that they care about is wonderful.
The advantage of owning a professional sports team, as opposed to a sheet-metal plant in the Midwest, is that these are businesses that our supporters and associates can relate to, and that their families can all relate to as fans. It’s those connections that are great.
Q: What are your expectations for the team this season?
A: My goal, and I told this to Darren from the get-go, you will get all of my support. We will create the right type of environment. I know this is also Mercedes-Benz’s slogan but it’s also the way we do things: It’s the best or nothing. We will make sure the soccer complex is world-class. You will have the financial resources to put the right roster together with the right number of Designated Players, hire a world-class coach, which we did. I will do everything that I know how to do.
Hopefully, it will produce a team that in Year 1 will be very competitive. Whether we will be the second (expansion) team to get to playoffs, I don’t know.
But it won’t be because of a lack of resources, energy, passion and commitment.
In sports, sometimes it takes a while for the chemistry to come together. Hopefully, the coach has been able to produce that through training camps and the preseason. It’s still a team that hasn’t played together competitively against another MLS team.
Q: Has the recent success of other Atlanta sports teams changed the expectations for Atlanta United?
A: It’s never “Win now.” In professional sports … you have to make long-term decisions.
My goal for the Falcons is exactly the same as for Atlanta United: it’s not winning. It’s to create a sustainably competitive team over a long period of time. Whether it’s 22 teams or going to whatever number in the future, we want to be in the top rung so that when people like Doug Roberson are writing about MLS, we want to be in the discussion about who are the top teams.
With the Falcons, it’s the same goal: Be a significant, important team in the NFL. Let’s get to where Atlanta United is significant and important in the playoffs every year.
It’s my job to provide the best environment and give them all of the support, resources, and encouragement I can to be a great team.
Q: Have you gotten to spend any time with Gerardo Martino? If so, what did you discuss?
A: I have. The problem is I don’t speak Spanish. My father, God rest his soul, spoke fluent Spanish. He’s looking down and probably wondering what happened.
Tata is making an effort to speak English.
I can’t communicate with him quite the way I can with Dan Quinn. I can tell you that during Tata’s interview, he definitely understood when I was talking about winning and about championships. He definitely understood that.
I enjoy being with him (Martino). He’s got a warm personality. That does change on the pitch. I see a level of intensity on the soccer pitch.
Q: Do you think MLS will supplant all leagues other than the NFL in popularity, as measured by TV ratings, average attendance, etc. within the next 10 years?
A: They’ve got a long way to go, but the trend line is significantly up. If you are asking if it can exceed Major League Baseball or the NBA, yes, I think it could. I’m not sure when. It could happen, not sure it can happen.
It’s growing. Part of the success of Major League Soccer, the quality of play has increased very significantly. The ability to keep top players here is greater today than it’s been before.
Darren, Carlos and Tata have kept the younger players, they’ve built a young team. They’ve built a team with a trend line going up. I think the sport is in a very good place.
It’s not true for every team in Major League Soccer, but the mix is getting better. The league is focused on the right issues in terms of quality of play on the pitch and fan experience.
Q: Do you have any preference as to which cities MLS chooses as the next for expansion?
A: I really don’t. The only thing I would tell Don Garber is from my experience in the NFL, even my experience back running Home Depot: Speed is great in sports. Also in business it’s great. But you can put too much speed in both.
You have to moderate the expansion program so that it moves at a reasonable clip so that it’s thoughtful. You don’t want to expand for the sake of the expansion. You don’t want to compromise on the quality of play or ownership.
MLS is doing a really good job of that today.
You have to be thoughtful about it. It’s not just a question of how many teams we can expand to. It’s the quality of play, the quality of the league, the quality of the owners. The quality has to be at or exceed the quality we currently have.
Q: Will you work to help the U.S. land the World Cup in 2026?
A: Great question. Anything I could do to help the process I’ll be more than happy to do. I would take direction from Doug, from Don. I would be happy to be part of any effort to help that take place.
I think the United States is due. I think the United States would do an incredible job.
Anything I can do I would be more than happy to do.
Whatever role anyone would ask — I will talk to Don about that on Sunday — I would be happy to do.