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The MLS's Southern Strategy

Atlanta's recent admission into the MLS marks a continued push by the league to enter the American Southeast.

(Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports)
(Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports)

Major League Soccer (MLS) announced today that Arthur Blank, owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, and the city of Atlanta will be awarded the 22nd MLS franchise. Atlanta’s admission into the league is MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s latest foray into the southeast.

SOUTHERN CONTRACTION AND RENEWAL

Following the 2001 MLS season, the league was hemorrhaging money and forced to contract its existing number of teams. The Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny were eliminated from the league and the MLS lost its foothold in the southeast.

Atlanta now joins the ranks of Miami and Orlando as the latest southeastern entrants. These three cities are part of a prudent attempt by MLS to regain its standing in a critical region of the country where the league has been thoroughly absent for over a decade.

ATLANTA

Atlanta is the largest American metropolitan area without an existing MLS team and Blank has been working toward acquiring a franchise for nearly a decade. Blank doled out a $70 million entrance fee to the MLS and declared that the yet to be named team will begin competing in 2017.

Garber and Blank both claimed a desire to bring MLS to Atlanta due to: Atlanta’s position as the 9th largest American city, a major youth soccer presence in the region, a booming Latino population, and the passion for the sport exhibited by the 68,212 people who attended a March 5 Mexico v. Nigeria international friendly at the Georgia Dome.

MLS commissioner Don Garber stated that the new Atlanta franchise would occupy the Atlanta Falcons’ new $1.2 billion stadium, set to open in 2017. The state of the art facility will use “downsizing technology” to shrink the 70,000 seat stadium to a smaller 29,000 seat facility with curtains shrouding the upper levels.

ORLANDO

In 2010, Orlando City Soccer Club owner Phil Rawlins announced his desire to move the club into the MLS. On November 19, 2013, Garber announced that Orlando SC owners Rawlings and Brazilian businessman Flavio Augusto da Silva had paid an entrance fee of $70 million to move the team into the MLS. Orlando’s admission is the first return of the MLS to Florida after the league contracted its original two Florida franchises in 2001.

Orlando seemed to be an obvious and safe choice for admission to the league. MLS clearly sought to replicate the success of its Portland Timbers franchise when choosing Orlando SC. Portland featured a strong built-in fan base and a successful first division team in the United Soccer Leagues (USL). Much like the Timbers, Orlando SC was also a successful first division USL team with a rabidly loyal fan base. MLS has calculated that based on Portland’s success, Orlando SC has essential features that lead to a strong probability of success.

Orlando will begin competing in 2015 and has begun developing a $110 million stadium in downtown Orlando. Architectural firm Populous will lead the stadium’s design and construction. The stadium will connect to the Orlando Magic’s Amway Center in an effort to create a thriving sports-entertainment center in downtown Orlando.

MIAMI

However, the MLS’s aggressive return to the southeast is not without problems. Most recently, a David Beckham-led ownership team was awarded a franchise in Miami. Miami has yet to find a stadium solution despite identifying a potential site near the port. Beckham and his ownership group have vowed to privately finance the stadium’s construction. This is especially important given the regional reticence towards public financing of stadiums following the Miami Marlins debacle. Despite that, Beckham’s vow the ownership team has already begun lobbying the state legislature for tax breaks.

Miami itself is a skeptical choice for a MLS team. The city is notorious for being passive about its native sport franchises. Even the dynastic Miami Heat have complained about the fan base being inattentive and abandoning the team during critical junctures in the playoffs. It remains to be seen whether the city can successfully support a nascent MLS franchise that will not have the instant of wattage of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

The MLS’s new venture into the South has been structured and judicious. Atlanta, Orlando, and Miami all have committed ownership groups working in concert with Garber and MLS brass. Atlanta and Orlando feature strong fan bases and embedded stadium deals that will support a more authentic soccer experience for fans. However, Miami remains a point of concern for the league. While the Beckham led ownership group carries gravitas, the passive fan base and questions regarding stadium financing remain troubling.

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