Atlanta Sports Market Prime for MLS Expansion

Major League Soccer (MLS) made their fourth expansion announcement in the past year on Wednesday when they awarded the city of Atlanta an MLS franchise.  Atlanta Falcons owner and co-founder of The Home Depot, Arthur Blank, will become the third owner in MLS to own both an MLS franchise and an NFL franchise.  Blank reportedly will pay a franchise fee between $70 million and $100 million for the newest MLS franchise.

Blank spoke to the media about his plans to have the team play in the newly built 65,000 seat Georgia Dome which is set to open in 2017.  This announcement goes against MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s previous comments about the necessity for expansion teams to have soccer specific stadium plans in place.  However, Blank has made it clear that the new stadium can retract to host crowds appropriate for MLS matches which will create the atmosphere soccer fans desire.

American sports fans often harbor negative feelings towards Atlanta and its inhabitants for their lack of success and support for the professional sports teams.  With David Beckham’s expansion plans in Miami, Blank may face some challenges adapting to MLS and convincing fans to watch professional soccer in a football stadium.  While this criticism may sound reasonable, further research indicates that Atlanta’s market may be ripe for an MLS franchise.

In a 2012 poll, soccer ranked as the second most popular sport among people aged 12-24.  MLS has found its niche amongst young people, even teaming up with Topps to release trading cards to target its younger fans.  It would make sense for MLS to expand to cities where there are larger concentrations of younger inhabitants in order to capitalize on this trend.  One 2013 study done by Vocativ examined the 50 most populated cities in the nation to determine which cities were best for young people to live based on a “Livability Index”.  Atlanta ranked as the 15th best city for people aged 18-35 to live in based on factors such as cost of leisure activities, average salary, low rent, public transportation costs, etc.  Atlanta ranked 15th out of 50 cities in median age, making it one of the youngest cities in the United States, a perfect fit for MLS’ desired demographic.  Still not convinced by Vocativ’s study? Portland and Seattle, two MLS franchises that rate highly amongst fans, rank first and fourth respectively in Vocactiv’s study.

If MLS is looking to improve the profile of the league through television ratings, look no further than Atlanta.  According to a report, Atlanta is “largest television market in the country without an MLS team”.  Atlanta ranks ninth in television market size, reaching over 2.3 million viewers.

Supporters of MLS know best that the league is more than television ratings.  Because MLS competes against much older American sports leagues for television ratings, matchday revenue is extremely important for financial stability.  One recent study from Business Insider compared the number of “big four” professional sports teams in a city to the size of the television market to determine the number of professional sports teams a city can successfully maintain.  While the study excludes MLS, the study explains that six cities are one professional sports team short of ideal.  Those cities are Los Angeles, Orlando, Sacramento, Portland, Raleigh, and Seattle.  Note that MLS has three very successful teams in three of these cities, with Orlando City entering the league in 2015 and possibly Sacramento in the near future.  Atlanta currently has three “big four” sports teams in the city but ideally can host 3.7 franchises.  This indicates that Atlanta still has a bit of room to support another team without oversaturating their television market.

Skeptics will surely remain, noting that Atlanta is not a “soccer city” and that fickle Atlantans have a habit of neglecting unsuccessful teams.  However, Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves ranked 13th of 32 teams in average attendance last season despite their consistent inability to win in the post-season.  The NFL’s Atlanta Falcons follow the same path in struggling to find recent playoff success, yet the team ranked 13th of 32 teams in average attendance in 2013-14.  The only shred of evidence that live soccer can draw fans in Atlanta is the National American Soccer League’s (NASL) Atlanta Silverbacks, which hosted the 2013 Fall Soccer Bowl, losing to the New York Cosmos on November 9th.  Atlanta hosted the event at Atlanta Silverbacks Park, a 5,000 seat stadium.  The organization added seating to accommodate the sell-out crowd of 7,211.

MLS has entered a golden age of expansion and continues to aim to bring soccer to cities in the United States to grow the game and compete in a crowded and mature sports landscape.  Atlanta has the conditions for MLS to succeed with their young demographic, television market, and the opportunity for growth.  Arthur Blank has publicly supported MLS in Atlanta for over a year.  Now that he has his wish, it is time for him to devote resources to grow the game in the city; the conditions are certainly ripe for it.

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Reporting on the business side of the world's game.