Atlanta supporters group, Terminus Legion, came out to support Wednesday's MLS expansion announcement. (David Goldman/AP)
Jim Smith sold MLS 1.0 in Columbus.
He was the Crew's general manager from 2000 through the summer of 2004, a period that included the most recent two seasons (2001-02) during which the club averaged more than 17,000 fans per game.
Smith also has sold pro sports in Atlanta, which is maligned frequently as a lousy sports town. He’s an executive VP and the chief marketing and revenue officer for the Falcons. The NFL franchise routinely sells out the Georgia Dome. Smith has played a key role in bringing an MLS club to Atlanta, and he’s convinced it’s going to work.
“We’ve done the research. I’m not going to put my job in jeopardy to advise on bringing in a new sport if I’m not very confident it’s going to be a success,” Smith told SI.com
On Wednesday, MLS and Falcons owner Arthur Blank ended a courtship that lasted nearly a decade and announced that the league’s 22nd club will kick off in downtown Atlanta in 2017. The yet-to-be-named team will play in the $1.2 billion, retractable roof facility scheduled to open that year.
NEWCOMB: The $1.2 billion stadium Atlanta's MLS team will share with the Falcons
There is skepticism, however, Some think an NFL stadium is too large. Others are upset about the inevitable artificial turf. And many just don’t think Atlanta will support another professional team. The Thrashers left, the Braves are moving to the suburbs and the Hawks had the NBA’s third-lowest attendance this season despite securing a seventh consecutive playoff berth.
Smith makes a key point, however, when defending the decision to bring pro soccer to the heart of the country’s ninth-largest metro area – none of those other franchises are owned by Blank.
“The committed owner in this market can make a difference,” Smith said. “People believe in Arthur Blank and that he’s going to be successful because he’s going to put the right investment behind the team and he’s going to let the fans have a lot of input how this team operates. Those are the final recipes. Atlanta has the demographic recipe for success and he is truly the difference maker.”
Smith, who played soccer growing up Connecticut and was a walk-on at Northwestern, said the Falcons liked what they saw after conducting research into Atlanta’s evolving demographics.
“This is an emerging market. A growth market. And on top of that, we have a very strong and growing Hispanic fan base,” he said. “We have a real young generation, a tech savvy generation, living in Atlanta. And they live downtown … When people graduate from college, especially from all these big SEC schools, a lot of them move to Atlanta. The tech jobs are here. We’re competing with the west coast for tech jobs.”
Blank has said that the overlap between Seahawks and Sounders season ticket holders in Seattle is less than three percent. Smith emphasized the fact that soccer fans aren’t necessarily the ones who are (or aren’t) going to NBA or MLB games. He believes firmly that a reliable soccer fan base exists and wants to be downtown.
Regarding the popularity of youth soccer, he said, “If they’re not coming to games now, I think they’re coming to games in the future. That’s part of the generational progression of the sport.”
The new stadium will have “soccer in mind from the very beginning,” Smith claimed. It will be soccer specific, just not soccer exclusive. Seats in the lower bowl will retract in order to widen the field for soccer, and a draping system will create a roof over the deck that will render the facility less cavernous and limit MLS capacity to around 29,000.
STRAUS: No one-size-fits-all criteria for MLS expansion
“It’s a mechanized system that can be deployed and will make the stadium feel more intimate, while keeping the energy and noise in,” Smith said. “We’ve told the architects, ‘This is the solution you have to create for us. We don’t want it to look like tarps on seats.’”
Smith said the system will “actually shrink the stadium and make it feel like a false ceiling.”
The first game isn’t for nearly three years, but the Falcons plan to hire a president for the nascent MLS team in the next four to six weeks. Smith said the process is just getting underway and that Blank will have the final say in the appointment. That president likely will work for an owner who’s willing to keep up in this new era of big-money designated players.
“He’s done that year after year with the Falcons, investing to the max of the salary cap, and we’ll continue to do whatever it takes to invest to get the players that we need to be competitive,” Smith said.
As for the club’s look, the Falcons’ red and black will feature heavily, along with a bit of gold. No team in MLS uses that combination.
“Red and black will be consistent colors throughout the stadium. We thought it would be best to keep the identities of our two teams similar. The Sounders do that exceptionally well,” Smith said. “The gold plays very well with the red and black, but if our fans come back and say, ‘Hey, we hate it,’ than we’ll probably change it.”
When the Falcons launched in 1966, their helmet featured two gold stripes. The red and black colors mirrored the University of Georgia’s, so the team felt it was only right to give Georgia Tech some love as well. The gold was gone by the 1970s.
Fans will have a say in the MLS team’s name as well, and Smith said it was too early to know whether the team will choose American or European traditions for inspiration.
“We’re not sitting here saying we’re going to be like a European club or a pseudo-European club. We’re going to take input and ask our fans what they would like for their identity. Arthur clearly said that as well,” Smith said. “We’re going to hire a president and get them to understand that being inclusive isn’t a buzz word for us. It’s who we are. It’s part of our value system as an organization and for us to even think that we’re going to create a brand without asking the fans for their input would be insane.”