Atlanta was officially awarded MLS’s 22nd franchise* yesterday, with the as-yet-unnamed team set to begin play in 2017 at the new $1.2 billion stadium being built by the Atlanta Falcons (with the help of about $560 million in taxpayer subsidies), whose owner Arthur Blank will own the soccer club as well. And given that Atlanta is currently home only to a minor-league team named for a now-deceased zoo gorilla that has only recently been able to draw more than 3,000 fans per game and once sold the rights to host a home game in exchange for cash, this has led to one of the most damning-with-faint-praise headlines of all time:
And sure, it might. In addition to its moving iris roof, the new Falcons stadium is supposed to have movable seats that will allow for a realignment to more soccer-friendly dimensions, and Atlanta is as sizable a market as plenty of other MLS home cities. And there is something nice about two consecutive new MLS teams being summoned into existence without requiring new stadiums to accompany them — I’m as much of a fan of soccer-only stadiums for viewing purposes as the next person, but there’s something to be said for making use of already existing facilities, especially for a team that isn’t that sure a bet to exist for very long.
Still, it’s another indication of MLS’s ongoing strategic shift from “Build us a soccer-specific stadium and show us you have some fan support” to “Give us enough money and a team is yours.” (Blank is coughing up $70 million for his expansion franchise.) It’s a defensible strategy, but it’s also one that could yet blow up in the league’s face if it works out as well as the NHL’s Sun Belt strategy. MLS will still always have that $70 million, though.
* Before anyone says anything about the reports calling it the league’s 23rd franchise: David Beckham hasn’t officially gotten his Miami franchise yet, just the option to buy one if and when he gets a stadium deal. So back off.