By: Will Clearman
Special to Soccer City FC
Atlanta which has the #8 Designated Market Area for television media from the 2007-08 season is clearly on Major League Soccer's list of expansion cities.
To compare, St. Louis ranks 21st and Columbus 32nd.
Will Clearman delivers his opinion piece exclusively here at Soccer City FC.
Help! I’m a soccer fan…and a Southerner!!! Yeah, I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia and, simply put, I am a soccer fanatic. I play it. I watch it. I love it. But the problem is that until my recent relocation to Washington DC, I never really had a top-level home team to support so I was limited to supporting the USL’s Silverbacks or the US National Team from my couch on the rare occasions when they played. When those options weren’t available, I had to settle for the occasional game on TV between two teams that I don’t care about and, of course, those infuriating Sportscenter teasers that lead us all to believe that we might actually get some good highlights from around the world only to be disappointed by a 5-second clip of fan violence in Nicaragua during the “Today’s Best” segment.
You see, for Major League Soccer fans throughout Atlanta and the southern United States, it has proven very difficult to follow the progress of the league and its players since its inception in 1996. With over 550 miles separating us and the nearest MLS team, league coverage in the local media has been non-existent. Atlanta has been constantly overlooked as a soccer hotbed by MLS and the United States Soccer Federation alike, yet on the few occasions when top-level matches are scheduled anywhere in the southern region, hundreds, if not thousands, of dedicated Georgians pack buses and cars and caravan to nearby cities eager to show their support for the sport.
While the south has played host to a modest number of international friendlies and US National Team games, Atlanta, one the largest and fastest growing cities in the region, has been consistently passed over as a venue mainly due to the lack of a suitable facility to play the games. Yes, there have been exceptions. There have been a few friendlies between Central American or Caribbean teams with lesser facility expectations that have been played in the area, but I certainly never heard about them because they were not advertised at all in the English-speaking media.
Even so, these games have often been well attended by the Hispanic community and have even prompted Don Garber, the Commissioner of MLS, to say “we're intrigued by Atlanta and the market's growing Hispanic population. We've also had discussions in Atlanta about soccer-specific stadiums since there is currently not an appropriate home for an MLS team.” He also adds, “It's our goal to be in Atlanta…. We will be there; it's a matter of time.” With the recent news that the one and only Arthur “Mr. Atlanta” Blank is seriously considering investing in a stadium and a team, we surely can finally allow ourselves to get excited now, right?
It seems that after years of preaching restraint and fiscal responsibility, MLS now appears to be afflicted with the same expansion-happy virus that the NHL is infected with. In just the last two years, MLS has expanded the league by two teams and announced its intentions of expanding into two more markets by 2010. Whatever happened to slow and steady growth? It’s not that I’m complaining. It’s just that if MLS really wants to strike the iron while it’s hot, they should first take a minute and think about it.
You see, I believe expansion should be a priority for the league but not because some obscure suburb floats the bill for a soccer-specific-stadium believing it will help with the poor local high-school graduation rates. No, the league should add teams where the league will most increase its national exposure and footprint or where it will most improve the strength of MLS on a national level. Therefore, it seems to me that putting a team in Atlanta, a huge media market, the capital of the New South, and the center of the most soccer-starved region in the country, is a must. In Atlanta, MLS has the chance to capitalize on something that has benefited our own Atlanta Braves for years - a very strong regional pride which allows for fans from Mississippi to South Carolina to all follow our Atlanta teams. That’s a big footprint.
Ok…so when? The clock seems to be ticking and we fans are getting anxious. The lack of a team to support week in and week out has proven to be very disappointing for all those folks that packed bars and restaurants all across the metro area to view the 2006 World Cup or this year’s Champions League. Growing interest in the sport has left both lifelong and converted soccer fans wishing that they would one day be able to witness a meaningful first-class game in person, right at home. Hopefully, it will indeed happen but until then, what can we do? As an individual, the task of helping to bring an MLS team to Atlanta seems quite daunting. But that didn’t stop those SOB’s up in Philly, did it? No, we need to unite, my friends. It’s about time the South gets a piece of the delicious MLS pie. Let’s let the powers-that-could-be know that we are here and that we want a team!