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At the recent MLS All-Star game, fans at the Portland Timbers’ Providence Park would have been able to look up at one of the executive boxes in the stadium to see something like a who’s who of power brokers in American soccer. There was U.S. soccer chief Sunil Gulati on one side of the room, and on another MLS VP Todd Durbin, who has personally overseen each MLS player contract since the league’s founding, was deep in conversation. Only Don Garber, the league commissioner, was absent — and that was due to ill health.
But front and center, overlooking this little snapshot of the U.S. soccer landscape, was a man who would freely admit to knowing very little about the sport but who has nonetheless invested significantly in the belief that it is poised to become a dominant feature in the much larger American sporting world — a landscape whose recent history Arthur Blank has helped shape.
Blank is the owner of the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL, and in 2017, if all goes to plan, his team will be sharing a brand new stadium in the city with an MLS expansion team that he will also own and run. New York City FC and Orlando City, 2015’s expansion teams, have been drawing attention over their spectacular swoops for talents such as David Villa, Frank Lampard and Kaká. David Beckham’s continued misadventures in Miami real estate keep his thwarted attempts to build a stadium for his mooted MLS side in the news. Meanwhile, Blank’s Atlanta team has been quietly putting the groundwork in on preparing for their entry into the league, over two seasons away.
“Don Garber and [MLS President] Mark Abbott tell us we’re starting earlier with our staffing than any other expansion team ever has,” Blank said. “We’re hiring a president two and a half years before playing our first game. So we’re trying to do it right. We’re trying to do it thoughtfully and give ourselves time to make those proper decisions.”
He was evidently taking that search seriously. This week Atlanta announced that Darren Eales — currently chief executive for English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur and a man who had helped broker deals in and out of MLS for the likes of Robbie Keane, Jermain Defoe and DeAndre Yedlin — has been appointed the new team’s first president. As statements of intent go, it seemed an emphatic one.
‘We’re hiring a president two and a half years before playing our first game. So we’re trying to do it right. We’re trying to do it thoughtfully and give ourselves time to make those proper decisions.’
prospective MLS franchise owner
When Blank met with Al Jazeera at the All-Star game, he was fresh from interviewing Atlanta presidential candidates and was taking the opportunity to brush up on his soccer knowledge at the same time.
“I’m new to this world of soccer, so everything I can read, I read — so I can learn,” he said. “Right now we’re interviewing presidents for our new club, and at the end of the interviews, I’ve said to them all, ‘Do me a favor. When we’re all finished with the interview, send me a bill for your time,’ because I’ve learned a lot about the game just listening to these fellows so far.”
Why a football team owner should want to invest in that other football — still not in the top tier of major sports in the U.S. — when he has no particular stake in the game might seem puzzling to the casual observer. This is especially true, considering Blank’s ambitions for the Falcons and a controversial and costly new stadium development that will house both teams. Put bluntly, Blank doesn’t need soccer as things stand.
But arguably, it’s not so much the landscape as it stands but how it might shift that attracts Blank, who has had MLS on his radar for a long time.
“We looked at it probably seven or eight years ago,” he said. “The league was obviously not where it is today. The league’s only 20 years old, so maybe [in] year 11 or 12 in its history, the stability wasn’t there. We knew at that time we’d have to build a soccer-specific stadium, and we couldn’t make the economics work — building a stadium just for soccer … When we were [first] looking at MLS, it probably wasn’t even in the top 20 of leagues around the world. Today, depending on what standard you’re using, it’s somewhere around seventh. So the bar continues to [be raised], and the quality of play is just going to continue to get better. The TV broadcast media is going to continue to grow and create that opportunity to invest more in players, etc., so …” He gestured upward to suggest limitless possibility.
‘When we were [first] looking at MLS, it probably wasn’t even in the top 20 of leagues around the world. Today, depending on what standard you’re using, it’s somewhere around seventh. So the bar continues to [be raised], and the quality of play is just going to continue to get better.’
In MLS governance terms, Blank is joining at an interesting period in the league’s growth. Amid the soccer-specific stadiums and splashy designated-player signings of the past decade, a quieter but no less significant trend has seen the ownership of the league’s clubs broaden even faster than the rate of expansion, as the core group of sports industrialists — who had incubated and even rescued the league after a near-fatal contraction in 2002 — divested their ownership to a growing entrepreneurial class of owners.
Blank is an interesting figure in all this. Undoubtedly a heavy hitter in the sports world, the co-founder of Home Depot is a coup for MLS to land on its board, and he can speak comfortably of his friendship with the older owners such as the Krafts in New England (“I know Robert obviously very well from the NFL — he’s probably my closest friend as an NFL owner”) while acknowledging the importance of what the new breed of owners, many of whom made their fortunes in the digital era, is bringing to a league targeting millennials.
“A lot of the other owners I’m just meeting now for the first time,” Blank said. “But it’s interesting. The NFL has gone through somewhat of the same cycles, because I’ve been an owner since 2001, so this will be my 13th year coming up. And if you look at the owners in the last 10, 15 years, a lot of the new owners have some of that same quality that you’re describing in MLS — the entrepreneurial business folks that have made their estates in a variety of other ways and businesses, as opposed to coming up through the NFL. So I think you bring in a lot of creative thinking, probably more balance and risk taking and what have you.”
While he will admit to being a soccer novice, he is convinced of his ability to transfer his business skills to a sport whose demographic profile skews younger than for other major American sports. And he believes that even the dominant NFL could learn thing or two from soccer’s more interactive culture.
“No. 1,” he said, “if you know my business background, all the businesses I’m involved with today … we’re the largest golf retailer in the country today in terms of size of store and distribution. We operate the No. 1–rated guest ranch in the western part of the United States. Everything we do is focused on fans or customers or guests, you know. So we’re totally fan focused in the case of soccer. We’re very close to the [ownership] group in Seattle through the NFL, but through their soccer commitment as well, and one of the things I learned early on from them is that when you take their combined ticket holders of NFL and MLS, less than 3 percent is the same person.”
“So that tells you how different the demographic is,” he continued. “There’s certain things you can do in terms of operating a stadium that the fans are indifferent to. They just want a great stadium, great food, etc., etc. But on fan-facing activities, you’ve got to be very soccer-specific in every single way. Otherwise you’re going to lose that fan base, and I understand that. And actually, I think — and I say this with all due respect to the NFL, which is the greatest professional league in the world — in terms of fan activation, they could learn a lot from soccer. Because soccer has done an incredible job. Tonight you see this [gesturing at the All-Star field]. We went to the World Cup and saw it there. We’ve seen it at international games. We saw it in our last international game we had in Atlanta at the Georgia Dome. Nigeria was playing Mexico, and we had 68,000 folks there.”
The mention of the Georgia Dome brings up one of the controversies of the Atlanta project: the new stadium. Assuming the stadium is built on time, it will replace the Falcons’ existing Georgia Dome home. And the Atlanta over which it will have panoramic views is far from wholly reconciled to the virtues of the project.
Part of the opposition is rooted in the contingencies that seem to come with every big stadium project in the U.S., particularly in the franchise system dominant in U.S. sports, in which teams can threaten to move the whole operation out of town unless they secure the best deal for themselves. Such opposition in Atlanta has partly rallied around the cost of the stadium ($200 million of which will be funded by the same hotel tax that funded the Georgia Dome), while others have pointed with justifiable skepticism to the promises made regarding the Georgia Dome when it was built in 1992 and how quickly those claims were undermined as the Dome made its way to an early obsolescence. Social media wags began referring to it as the Miley Cyrus Dome to highlight the absurdity of a building as young as the pop star being perceived as no longer fit for use.
Yet Blank, who can at least argue that he inherited rather than designed the Georgia Dome — and can boast of his nearly four-decade investment in Atlanta since the founding of the Home Depot there — can at least partly defend himself against some of these criticisms while pointing to his ambitions for both the Falcons and the as-yet-unnamed MLS side, which could not be fulfilled by the current facility. The new stadium may not match the soccer-specific part of MLS’s recent blueprint for expansion teams, but its downtown location counted in its favor with the league, as did its innovative adaptive technology for hosting both sports.
“We’ve done everything we knew how to do, as far as was humanly possible, way out of proportion to make any financial sense, to design it for soccer as well,” he said. “So the seats will be pulled back to have the right lines for soccer, the whole upper deck, mezzanine deck, will be draped so we have the intimacy we have here [at the Providence Park field], and it’s going to be an international-standard soccer stadium as well. So we’re excited about that.”
Blank also spoke of his excitement about “the youth component” of the project and of how it will “help serve the 50,000 or so youth who play soccer in the state of Georgia — probably 70 percent of whom are in Atlanta. Our stadium is downtown. It’s an urban stadium, so it appeals to that demographic of 18-to-35-year-olds. And Atlanta’s downtown population is filled with that demographic and a growing Hispanic population … So we feel the timing is right.”
‘Our stadium is downtown. It’s an urban stadium, so it appeals to that demographic of 18-to-35-year-olds. And Atlanta’s downtown population is filled with that demographic and a growing Hispanic population.’
The timing has been seen as being right before, of course. The 1996 Atlanta Olympics were supposed to be a catalyst for focusing a city that still has not gotten the balance right between inner-city investment and suburban sprawl. (Atlanta was dubbed “Sprawl City” by the sociologist Robert Bullard). Woven into the matrix of those relationships have been the racial tensions and perceived inequalities of economic opportunity with which Atlanta continues to struggle.
The new stadium is set to be built in Vine City, a neighborhood where Martin Luther King Jr. lived in the last years of his life, and it’s still a hub for activists proud of their connections to the civil rights movement. When the Georgia Dome was completed in 1992, then–Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson promised that it would not be back to “business as usual” and that investment in Vine City would follow. It never did, with the result that a once enthusiastic local population has had something of a twice-shy attitude to the new stadium.
Blank and the Falcons have made similar promises, with a reported $45 million, including $15 million from the Blank family trust, earmarked for direct investment in the neighborhood, and they can expect to be held accountable locally to expectations set by the mistakes of the past, particularly in a city where the black population has often felt culturally and structurally disenfranchised. Any sign that they are being asked to bear a disproportionate burden for the costs of the new stadium could become a political flashpoint in very short order.
For now, though, the stadium is pushing through. The new MLS side is hiring, and Blank is confident that he can listen to and appease local concerns. And in Portland, as the great and good in the executive box settled down to watch the second half of the league’s showpiece game against Bayern Munich, its newest member turned back to the field and his dream of the future.
“I see the direction as continuing to move up,” Blank said. “I see no reason why it’s not going to continue to move in this direction. I really don’t.”