ATLANTA — About 15 years ago, when Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank was first approached by Major League Soccer about starting an expansion team, he ended up turning down the opportunity. At the time, MLS teams were building 20,000-seat soccer stadiums in the suburbs of Chicago, Dallas and Denver—stadiums that would eventually be regarded as mostly underwhelming.
Even then, Blank was ahead of his time.
“They wanted us to build a 20,000-seat soccer-specific stadium in the suburbs, and that was the thinking then. But that just didn’t feel right to me, so we waited,” Blank said here this week ahead of Saturday’s MLS Cup final between Atlanta and Portland. “I felt like this was kind of an urban experience, and the diversity of Atlanta was growing significantly, particularly downtown with a younger generation.”
Let’s be clear: Blank’s limitless ambition—see Atlanta’s No. 1 ranking in SI’s 2018 MLS Ambition Rankings—is the foundational reason why Atlanta has reached this final in its second season; why it averaged a league-record 53,002 attendance this season (with seven games, including the playoffs, in excess of 70,000) in downtown Mercedes-Benz Stadium; why it spent $60 million on a training facility, why it signed former Barcelona coach Tata Martino and a raft of rising South American stars; and why it dropped an MLS-record $15 million transfer fee on Ezequiel Barco (whose inability to make the starting lineup is a reflection of Atlanta’s personnel quality).
In a single-entity league where rival owners sometimes show next to no ambition—one MLS owner, not Blank, said he has never met absentee Colorado Rapids owner Stan Kroenke—Blank is showing the pathway that has to become MLS’s future league-wide.
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“The ambition I would say is really to be the very best that we could be,” Blank says. “And so when you have a vision, unless you can execute against that vision it’s just having hallucinations. I think we understood that to be successful we’re going to have to hire and overinvest in the very best people … and invest with the anticipation that this was going to be a great franchise.
"I don’t think you can fool the fans at all, so they interpret everything we’ve done from the outset as being first-class. … You send all those messages and constantly reinforce them with actions, and you set yourself up for the best possible outcome.”
Blank, who also owns the Atlanta Falcons, became a billionaire after co-founding The Home Depot, and he said he has approached Atlanta United’s early success in the same way he did as an entrepreneur. Blank never framed any of the media articles that praised The Home Depot back in the day and focused on the opposite.
“We took all the articles that were not so good—which weren’t very many—and we framed those,” he says. “[Partner] Bernie Marcus and I shared a bathroom, and we would look at those. We took time to celebrate our successes, but we focused always on: How do we get better?”
Early on, Blank supported the strategy of team president Darren Eales and technical director Carlos Bocanegra to forego aging European stars and sign rising South American talent (2018 league MVP Josef Martínez, MVP runner-up Miguel Almirón, Tito Villalba, Barco) with the idea that they would eventually sell some of those players to Europe and start the process over again. How does Atlanta get better? We’ll find out soon. Martino is coaching his last game on Saturday before likely becoming the Mexico national team coach, and almost certainly Almirón is, too, before being sold to a Premier League team. (The most likely candidates to replace them will feature in the Copa Libertadores final's second leg: Boca Juniors coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto and River Plate midfielder Pity Martínez.)
Atlanta United has been such a runaway hit, in fact, that even the Atlanta Falcons have at times felt subordinate to the MLS team.
“There were some people last year up at Flowery Branch, where the Falcons team is based, who felt a little bit like between the success of soccer and the attendance like the stepchildren,” Blank says with a smile. “So we had to reassure them that wasn’t the case.”
Still, though, Blank says he really does believe that winning the MLS Cup title on Saturday would be just as important as winning the Super Bowl, which he famously came thisclose to doing with the Falcons in February 2017.
“One of the things we’ve done here is make sure the soccer fans feel they are treated equally as Atlanta Falcons fans are,” he says. “We really learned that from Seattle. We spent a tremendous amount of time with the most successful franchise launch in the history of MLS, which was Seattle, learning about what they did well. They were great about it.”
Now Blank is paying it forward. He spoke several times with Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, helping convince him to become an MLS owner and keep the Columbus Crew in Ohio. And when Atlanta hosted the MLS All-Star Game in August, Blank said commissioner Don Garber asked him to address his fellow MLS owners at a private dinner about what had made the Atlanta launch so successful. Blank demurred at first, not wanting to come off as a know-it-all, but Garber eventually persuaded him to do it.
The fact is that Blank thinks the remarkable achievements of Atlanta United to make club soccer a cultural touchstone in his city can apply in other North American cities as well.
“If Atlanta was the No. 1 market in the United States, you’d say, ‘Well, [United’s success] is because it’s Atlanta,’” he says. “But it’s not. It’s No. 7 or No. 8 … It’s not because it can only be done in Atlanta. I’ve lived in other cities around the country and traveled a good bit, and there are other great cities in the United States that have great diversity and demographics and urban development. So this can be done elsewhere, but it takes a vision. It takes an owner who’s willing to support the vision. It takes bringing the best people and giving them enough time. … We brought in Darren two-and-a-half years before we played a match.”
When you see that Atlanta United is drawing some of the world’s biggest crowds for club soccer and spending serious money on every aspect of the organization, you can’t help but ask Blank if he thinks the MLS shackles should come off and the league—which has billionaires for owners—really should start competing to buy the world’s best players in their prime. But he’s not quite ready to go there publicly yet. He recently read an excerpt of the new book “The Club” about the English Premier League and was struck by the $250 million in losses that former NFL owner Randy Lerner had when he owned Aston Villa.
“I’ve got some NFL partners that have been involved with the history of the league—Robert Kraft is one, and Clark Hunt is another—and I think they’ve been particularly concerned by making sure there’s financial sensibility in Major League Soccer, much like the NFL has done,” Blank says. “The NFL shares 83% of all its revenue, so it’s a bit of a rising-tide-floats-all-boats. I think MLS is trying to avoid [Lerner’s experience], which is a healthy thing to do. … [Eales and Bocanegra] took a different tack that I fully supported looking for young emerging stars and catching them on this part of their career and having them ascend at this level, and then you see them move on with transfer fees. As long as you understand it from that perspective and you have a great academy behind it, I think we’ll be in a good place.”
If Atlanta can win an MLS Cup title on Saturday, it will take yet another step forward. And Blank, for his part, will keep asking the question: How do we get better?