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Why MLS can work in Atlanta
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Why MLS can work in Atlanta

Why MLS can work in Atlanta
Photo Credit: Hyosub Shin
March 5, 2014 Atlanta - A healthy crowd of fans flows into the Georgia Dome before an international friendly soccer match between Mexico and Nigeria on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Why MLS can work in Atlanta

Behind an effort led by Arthur Blank, Atlanta is expected to receive Major League Soccer’s 22nd franchise. An announcement is scheduled for April 16. The team will begin play in 2017, which is when the new downtown stadium is scheduled to open.

Now that a team seems certain will soccer work in Atlanta, or will the franchise go the way of the NHL’s Thrashers?

In Major League soccer, there are four important factors that contribute to a team’s financial success. They also coincide with many of the reasons that I think that an expansion team will work in Atlanta.

So, here goes:

Owning the stadium or revenues. Fourteen of Major League Soccer’s 19 teams own their stadiums. The Falcons won’t own the $1.2 billion stadium, but they will operate it and will receive the revenues.

Primary sponsor for jerseys. Deals for jersey-front partners in MLS range from $3-$6 million. I would suppose that it won’t be difficult for a primary sponsor to be found for Atlanta’s team considering the number of Fortune 500 companies that are headquartered in Atlanta.

Throw in that Major League Soccer tends to skew toward the younger demographic craved by many companies and there may be more potential sponsors than there are places to sew a logo.

Stadium naming rights. The Falcons will control the naming rights and they have indicated that they will sell them. AT&T is reportedly paying between $17-19 million for naming rights to the stadium in Dallas.

There will be coin to be made.

Strong season-ticket base. This is the wildcard in the formula. Atlanta doesn’t have the best history when it comes to season tickets sold to individuals or corporate partners. However, there may be a curiosity to see the new stadium and new sport in the first few years that will offset the city’s history.

Here are the numbers that soccer fans in Atlanta need to consider: Average attendance (including season-ticket sales) in Major League Soccer this year is 19,035 (through April 3). Seattle leads the league with an average of 38,716. Chivas USA is last with an average of 10,004. Considering the metro Atlanta area has more than 5 million people, an average of 20,000 people at a game doesn’t seem difficult to maintain.

By comparison, the NBA’s Hawks are averaging 14,385 fans per home game this year.

But the Hawks may not be the soccer team’s biggest competitor. The MLS team (the new Chiefs? The Legion?) would likely be competing against the Braves for the average sports dollar during the summer time. The Braves averaged 31,465 fans last year. The team will also be moving into a new stadium, which will compete with Blank’s new stadium.

The Thrashers, the NHL team that moved to Winnipeg but whose carcass the MLS team will most likely be compared to, averaged 17,206 in its first season in 1999-2000 and 13,469 in its last in 2010-11, according to www.hockeydb.com.

Changing demographics. Major League Soccer officials have frequently said that the Thrashers shouldn’t be compared to a Major League Soccer team because of the changing demographics in the metro-Atlanta region. The Hispanic population in the metro area doubled from 247,477 in the 2000 census to 477,891 in the 2011 census. More than 850,000 Hispanics were counted in the state in the 2011 census.

That growth has been partially reflected in the ticket sales for the soccer games held at the Georgia Dome in the past five years. A record of 68,212 tickets were sold for last month’s game between Mexico and Nigeria at the Georgia Dome.

Running lean. Major League Soccer tends to maintain fiscal responsibility.

The salary cap for this year is a little more than $3 million, but the average investment on players is around $7 million for each team’s 30-man roster once designated players and Generation Adidas players are included.

Still, $7 million is just slightly more than half of what the Braves are paying one player, Dan Uggla, this year.

The savings in salaries can be passed down to ticket prices.

New York had the highest average season-ticket price ($829) last year while Chivas had the cheapest ($676), according to www.bigdsoccer.com. The per-game average ticket price was slightly less than $25.

The average ticket price is $26.

Braves’ season-ticket prices range from $5,907 (per-game average of $72.93) in the Henry Aaron seating area to $425 ($5.25) in the upper pavilion.

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