Friday roundup: The news media are collectively losing their goddamn minds edition

It’s a full slate this week, so let’s do this!

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MLS commissioner doesn’t rule out non-soccer-specific stadiums while watching soccer in one

Don Garber went to an MLS match on Saturday, which makes sense since he’s the commissioner of MLS, at as the match was at Atlanta United‘s new stadium which is also the Falcons‘ new football stadium, he was asked whether he thought maybe demanding soccer-only stadiums as a condition for expansion teams wasn’t entirely necessary. His reply:

“It’s interesting; it’s a great question. The good thing about being new and trying to figure it out as you go along is you have a specific plan and then there are times when you have to modify that plan,” Garber said. “I think good business leaders and good businesses, ya know, don’t just get stuck in their previous strategies but try to evolve and see how things develop…

“We really wanted a soccer stadium here and Arthur said, ‘Hey, this stadium I’m going to build is going to be the best in the world, it’s going to be world class, we’re going to fill it up.’ And he did,” Garber said. “So, I don’t know that that changes our point of view in any other market, but certainly when I see what’s happening here and in Seattle I’m happy that we have stadiums that can have 70,000 people in ’em.”

So here’s the thing: Garber’s “soccer-specific stadiums only” demand has never actually been a strict rule, as witness not just Atlanta, but also NYC F.C. playing at the new Yankee Stadium. (Is it still new now that it’s eight years old? It’s certainly not the old Yankee Stadium.) MLS is always willing to make exceptions when it’s willing to make exceptions.

The problem is that then you have cities thinking, Hey, they’re willing to make exceptions. Like Cincinnati, where WCPO spun out a whole article last night on how Garber’s statements mean maybe there’s a chance for F.C. Cincinnati to get an MLS franchise while still playing at Nippert Stadium, where they keep breaking attendance records.

There’s a tendency to take sports league operators’ statements as policy dictates, when really they’re leverage gambits: Garber isn’t saying he wants new soccer-specific stadiums because his stomach roils at the notion of watching soccer anywhere else, he’s saying it because it’s the best way to get new soccer-specific stadiums. Which is fine, that’s his job — but trying to parse his every statement as if reading missives from the Politburo and not just listening to a guy trying not to paint himself into a corner is probably a bad idea.

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Falcons’ retractable roof won’t work for opening game, will by December, maybe

Hey, remember back in April when it was revealed that the Atlanta Falconscrazy new iris-style stadium roof was taking longer to build than expected, and team execs promised it would be ready for opening day in September? Well, about that:

The retractable roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be in the closed position when the new Falcons stadium debuts next month and for an undetermined period of time beyond that, the CEO of Falcons parent company AMB Group said today.

Steve Cannon said construction delays have the project behind schedule on fully mechanizing the roof…

Cannon said he could not provide specifics on when the first event might be played with the roof open, although he said it would be at some point during the Falcons’ and Atlanta United’s 2017 seasons.

Well then! The Falcons season runs through December, so sounds like the roof will definitely be operational by then. Of course, Cannon said in April he expected the roof to be operational by the start of the season, not the end, so he has a bit of a record in the wishful-thinking department. I’m not going to mention that Montreal’s Olympic Stadium roof was supposed to retract at first, too, but never really managed it — oh whoops, looks like I just did.

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Falcons stadium to open three months late, cost even more than $1.4b projection

The Atlanta Falcons stadium slated to open next year is … under budget and ahead of schedule? Ha ha ha ha, guess again, foolish human:

Construction of the downtown stadium that will become home to the Atlanta Falcons and a new professional soccer team won’t be completed in time for a long-planned March 2017 opening.

The new target date for completion of Mercedes-Benz Stadium is June 1, 2017, Arthur Blank, owner of the Falcons and Major League Soccer team Atlanta United, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview Thursday…

He said the delay will add to the cost of the $1.4 billion project but declined to say how much. He said he’ll bear the additional cost, as required by his stadium deal with the city and state.

For the Falcons, this doesn’t mean much, as I am told that football is not played in April and May anyway. (This is why I think of those months as “The time I can safely watch Sportscenter.”) For Atlanta United, though, it’s going to be a mess, because that’s the first three months of the MLS season, meaning they’re going to face the choice between launching its first season at a temporary site, or going on a Yard Goats-esque road trip.

The AJC has also reported (last week, but I just noticed it) that the Falcons have only sold about 27,000 PSLs for their 71,000-seat stadium, which the agency handling PSL sales says is “right on line” with what they expected. Still, it does leave open the possibility that the Falcons could have to offer price cuts for the less-desirable seats — all those except the cheapest and priciest ones, which is about as you’d expect given our current economic structure — which could be interesting to anyone who cares about the future capacity of PSL sales to pay for stadiums. Which might just be me and NFL owners, but I’ll be watching this closely, anyway.

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DeKalb County subsidies for Atlanta MLS practice field could be worth as much as whole practice field

The Atlanta United FC MLS team struck a deal last week to build a practice facility in DeKalb County (that’s the other county that part of Atlanta is in, along with Fulton), and yawn, soccer practice facility, right? Except that today the indefatigable Atlanta Journal Constitution has dug up how much money and tax breaks the county would be providing for the project, and yowza:

  • The county would provide $12 million to United owner Arthur Blank for new parks department offices and demolition and land preparation.
  • The county would provide 41 acres of government-owned land for free.
  • The whole thing would be property-tax free.
  • The county would “” a pedestrian walkway to the nearby MARTA transit station.

Okay, that’s still not a huge amount as these things go — I don’t know how much property taxes would be (and the AJC doesn’t say) or how much a pedestrian walkway costs, but counting the cash, total maybe $20-30 million tops? How much is the practice facility going to cost, anyway?


On the bright side, the county would get a whole 15% of any naming-rights fees for the complex (which will include a 3,500-seat grandstand, because everybody wants to watch MLS players practice, right?), plus the county can use it when United doesn’t have dibs, which given that the MLS season runs March through November is likely to be not very often. And to think that some county commissioners aren’t convinced this is a great thing! Freakin’ NIMBYs.

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Atlanta officially granted MLS team for 2017, because $70m, that’s why

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:

Despite what everyone tells you, an MLS expansion team in Atlanta will work

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.

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Atlanta reportedly close to getting MLS team, as league says, “Enh, soccer-only stadiums not so important after all”

When MLS commissioner Don Garber announced plans to add four more teams this decade and create the most humongoid soccer league on earth, the assumption was that next to follow would be a massive bidding war among cities to build soccer-only stadiums, since that’s what Garber’s always demanded before and there are tons of mid-sized cities to choose from. Instead: Atlanta, Georgia, come on down!

Local and national reports say MLS is relatively close to an agreement with Falcons owner Arthur Blank to bring an MLS expansion team to Atlanta, one of the five new franchises coming in the next seven years. The two would share the billion-dollar retractable domed stadium—aka, “The Sphincter”—that’s scheduled to be completed in 2017…

The lack of a soccer-specific stadium doesn’t appear to be an issue for MLS. The Atlanta stadium will be designed to accommodate soccer, with a wide pitch and separate locker rooms, and the upper deck can easily be closed down to reduce capacity. A similar situation is in place in Vancouver, where the Whitecaps play in a CFL stadium.

Also Seattle, where the Sounders play in an NFL stadium. Still, coming on top of the announcement of New York City F.C. with only a baseball stadium to play in for now, this seems to indicate a shift in strategy for Garber: Instead of doling out teams one at a time to whoever coughs up a soccer-specific stadium, just grab whatever money it can for expansion franchises ASAP and sweat the home field stuff later. (Of the other two new teams rumored to be next in line, Orlando is apparently still dependent on a new soccer-only stadium, while nobody’s sure where Miami would play, just that David Beckham would own it and what he wants, he gets.)

Whether this is because Garber is looking for quick cash now that franchise values seem high or what, I’ll leave to somebody with a more thorough understanding of MLS finances. Still, if this Atlanta thing pans out, you have to wonder what cities that are currently considering building soccer-only stadiums because their teams say they need them — I’m looking at you, Washington, D.C. — will think of the fact that sharing a football stadium is now apparently A-OK with MLS. Stadium blackmail is tough.

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Garber: MLS to keep adding teams like there’s no tomorrow

During halftime of last night’s MLS All-Star Game — in which the league’s best players were trounced by a club team that finished 7th in the Italian league last season — MLS commissioner Don Garber announced that the league will expand by another four teams, to 24, by the year 2020.

That would just continue the crazy pace that MLS has been on since 2005, when it had only ten teams; NYC F.C. is set to become the league’s 20th team in 2015, meaning the league will keep on adding one team a year (with one year off, maybe) through the end of the decade. Possible expansion targets could include Miami, Atlanta, Sacramento, Orlando, Detroit, Minneapolis, and probably a few others that the AP and I are both forgetting.

This is likely to mean more attempts at stadium deals, which are already burbling under the surface in many of those cities (Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson declared his renewed support for a soccer stadium there earlier this week). On the one hand, the pre-announcement of so much expansion should actually give more leverage to city mayors to drive a harder bargain on stadium deals, since if MLS needs to come up with sites for four more teams, they’re going to have to take pretty much whatever stadiums they can get. On the other hand, city mayors don’t really seem to understand leverage, so it probably won’t matter.

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Garber: MLS talks with Queens “at finish line,” otherwise known as starting gate

Lesson #367 in why it’s important to read the whole article, not just the headline: MLS commissioner Don Garber gave his state-of-the-league press conference yesterday in advance of Saturday’s MLS Cup, and declared that discussions with New York City over a new stadium in Queens are “at the finish line.” And what exactly did he mean by that?

“There’s a lot of work that needs to happen to finalize our agreement with New York City over our use of the land and our ability to lease that land to build a stadium,” he said. “I do believe that we will resolve that shortly. I can’t put any timetable on that, but we are at the finish line. Once we are there, we’ve got to go into a formal approval process that all developers have to go through in New York City. That will take some time. We need to reach an agreement with the city, with the local community and with the state of New York on replacing the land that we will be utilizing for the stadium.”

In addition, MLS is negotiating with the Mets to use the parking lots adjacent to Citi Field.

So basically, MLS thinks that it will soon arrive at an agreement with City Hall on a stadium proposal, which will then proceed through the ULURP process, which will involve nine months of public hearings before any deal can be finalized. So while getting Mayor Michael Bloomberg on board is an important step, it’s also arguably the easiest one, and a lot could still happen, especially in a year where city council speaker Christine Quinn is going to be involved in a tight race to replace Bloomberg as mayor.

Garber, meanwhile, went on to discuss possible expansion teams in Atlanta (“If [a new Falcons stadium] is able to come together, [we’ll] try to figure out how an MLS team could be part of their plans”) and Orlando (“at some point if they are able to finalize a stadium plan that makes sense, we would be very interested in working with them”), as well as stadium campaigns for D.C. United (“I believe there is new momentum in D.C.”) and the New England Revolution (“though there is nothing new to report, the family is focused on it”). So basically, every current or potential team wants a new soccer-only stadium to play in, and damned if he’s going to say anything negative about any of them.

As for who’d pay for them, Garber said of New England that “we are looking for public support up in that area because of the cost of developing a project there,” while saying that D.C. United’s owners have “the capacity to be able to put more private equity into a deal, and that makes the opportunity far more viable during these economic times than perhaps it would have been when [the team] was looking for an enormous amount of public support.” You can read something into that if you’d like, but it mostly just comes down to “We’re looking for as much public cash as we can get our hands on, but we realize we’re MLS and can’t throw our weight around as much as some leagues,” which has pretty much been his modus operandi all along.

So really, not much new here at all. We now return you to your regularly scheduled David Beckham wild rumors, already in progress.

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