Kempner: Arthur Blank only cautiously bets on soccer fans in Gwinnett

Nov 17, 2017
The Gwinnett Braves, a minor-league team for the Atlanta Braves, has struggled to attract fans to Coolray Field north of Lawrenceville near the Mall of Georgia. Now, Atlanta United plans to launch a United Soccer League team that will join the Gwinnett Braves in playing games at Coolray in 2018. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Atlanta United proved that a shockingly large number of metro Atlantans are willing — anxious even — to pay good money to go wild at pro soccer games.

But a top official for owner Arthur Blank is toning down expectations as they press their luck and dig deeper into the world’s most popular sport. The organization, which also owns the Atlanta Falcons, is poised to test the market with a lower division pro soccer team in Gwinnett County.

The new United Soccer League team will play next year at Coolray Field, where peers with the minor-league Gwinnett Braves have seen their own fan base sink from small to tiny.

People 2 People November 6, 2017

We’re about to find out if yet another soccer team can outdraw average local game attendance for baseball, which we’re supposed to believe is America’s favorite pastime.

Just how much soccer can one community squeeze the pudding out of? And how many pro teams can be stuffed into Gwinnett? (The Atlanta Gladiators minor-league hockey team and lacrosse’s Georgia Swarm are also there.)

“We’ve got modest expectations on attendance,” Steve Cannon, the CEO of Blank’s AMB Group, told me when I asked about the new USL team.

Deals for United fans

They have a plan, though, to improve their odds. Season-ticket packages for Atlanta United games at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium also will include tickets to USL games in Gwinnett, Cannon told me. (Though a team spokeswoman said it’s not yet clear how many USL games will be included in the Atlanta United package.)

“We think it will be a delight” for fans, Cannon said.

That doesn’t sound like a great way to bring in ticket revenue. But with more than 36,000 Atlanta United season ticket holders, maybe it will jump-start the new team. There are lots of other entertainment options in Gwinnett and the rest of metro Atlanta that the USL team will compete with.

“We want to make sure we aren’t playing in an empty stadium,” Cannon said.

So far, the team doesn’t have a long-term commitment in Gwinnett. The deal at the county’s Coolray Field is for one year, with fees being paid for using the facility as well as for the cost of converting the baseball field into a soccer pitch for each USL game.

Cannon told me there is no particular intention to move, though. “Ultimately, we want to build a fan base, so moving around is not good.”

I suppose the Gwinnett Braves might want to make sure they can live with the hassle of cohabitating with soccer.

The tentative tenor sits in stark contrast with the remarkable success of Atlanta United, which in the fall finished its inaugural season.

The team made it into the playoffs of the nation’s top-rung Major League Soccer. And Atlanta United’s average attendance of more than 48,000 set a record for the MLS and outdrew every team in Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League.

Soccer challenges

USL teams across the nation tend to generate far smaller crowds, averaging a few thousand per game.

Even in metro Atlanta, soccer has had a hard time in the past. The Atlanta Silverbacks, which at times was a semi-pro team, struggled to sell season tickets from its perch near Spaghetti Junction.

Minor-league teams can face a tough road. The Gwinnett Braves, operating in the geographic shadow of the Atlanta Braves, averaged only 3,135 customers per baseball game this year, easily the lowest in its league and about half what it had in 2009.

Now, there are plans to change the team’s name. Suggestions have ranged from the Gwinnett Buttons to the Gwinnett Big Mouths.

But let’s face the cold truth: Neither the Gwinnett Braves nor Atlanta United’s planned USL team exists primarily to attract fans to their games. Their central function is to supply their big brothers with a talent pipeline or to take in players from the higher level teams that need more work.

Of course, who doesn’t want to woo fans across a wider geography?

“It will allow us to push our reach north,” Cannon told me.

Hopefully, soccer can manage the trek.

Related coverage:

Atlanta United will launch USL team in Gwinnett

Few more details about Atlanta United’s USL team

Atlanta’s soccer shocker? Ridiculous success with fans

Gwinnett Braves try for a better pitch for fans

Find Matt on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/mattkempnercolumnist) and Twitter (@MattKempner) or email him at mkempner@ajc.com.

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