Atlanta-focused Q&A with MLS boss Don Garber

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Atlanta-focused Q&A with MLS boss Don Garber

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HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
September 16, 2017 Atlanta - Atlanta United midfielder Miguel Almiron (10) goes to the ball in the second half of an MLS soccer match at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, September 16, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

MLS Commissioner Don Garber attended Saturday’s record-breaking Atlanta United game against Orlando City at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

A new league single-game record 70,425 tickets were sold for the match, which ended in a 3-3 draw.

Garber seemed to enjoy every minute of the experience. He did the “A-T-L” Viking clap, walked around the concourse to feel the energy of the crowd, praised team owner Arthur Blank and Atlanta United’s staff and discussed the city’s potential to host the World Cup and MLS All-Star game  in a wide-ranging interview held during halftime.

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.

Q: What did you think of Mercedes-Benz Stadium?

A: It’s awe-inspiring. It’s absolutely spectacular I drove in from the airport. It’s such a massive structure. You can see it from far away. 

I got in here early. Fans were in here an hour before the game. It’s absolutely incredible. It’s an exciting day for me and for the league.

Q: What does this say about soccer in Atlanta?

A: It wasn’t that long ago that we were looking at an expansion strategy that we wanted to get into the Southeast, generally. Our southern-most team was D.C. United.

We were able to expand into Orlando, which has been a great success, and then we met with Arthur, who was so bullish about his city, about this market. 

I have to tell you we were skeptical at first. Arthur kind of looked at us all and said Atlatna is going to be a great city, it’s going to be a great soccer market. My city will turn out for a great team with a great brand. 

He’s over-delivered.

Some of the stats are incredible. This team in six days will have more than 150,000 people come to three soccer matches.

There are all sorts of records being broken. It’s a great testament to Arthur’s vision, his execution because you need to be able to deliver on your plan and not just have a great plan. He has a great organization in Darren (Eales) and Steve Cannon. It’s a good moment for the league.

Q: How does this move the league forward?

A: It says that there are really no limits. We never expected this to happen. Arthur did. I think Darren and the staff did.

We’ve been in the soccer business a long time and I think we are continuing to have experiences like this that are defying everyone’s expectations. It defied mine.

When I come here and am on the field and looking at the Supporter’s Section, the spike ceremony and the supporters, I want to remind myself to take a deep breath and remember that this is the beginning of even greater things to happen in our league. 

Q: Who will break the record next?

A: I don’t know. Let’s get this record broken first. This is obviously a record-setting game for a regular-season MLS match. They are tracking to break our average season attendance, they are tracking to break the record the Cosmos had back in the ’70s, which was a different era and a different place in time in soccer in America.

Let’s get all those records broken and then we will worry about the next one.

Q: Part of the expansion effort is to make sure that teams had soccer-specific stadiums. Do you see crowds this large in a stadium like this alter that?

A: It’s a great question. The good thing about being new and trying to figure it out as you go along is you have a specific plan, and there are times that you have to modify that plans. Good business leaders and businesses don’t just get stuck in their previous strategies but try to evolve and see how thigs develop.

We really wanted a soccer stadium here and Arthur said this stadium is going to be the best in the world. It’s going to world-class and we are going to fill it up. And he did. I don’t know if that changes our view in any other market, but certainly when I see what’s happening here and in Seattle I’m happy that we have stadiums that can have 70,000 people in it.

Q: When it comes to the unified bid for the 2026 World Cup, how do stadiums like this help?

A: That process is just starting. There were 40 or 41 cities. Atlanta is a great city and soccer market. I don’t think there’s any question that this is a city that supports the sport. 

I would expect that they would be high on the list for the World Cup bid when that process gets finalized.

But there are so many other cities.

We can host the World Cup tomorrow if we needed to.  This country has become a soccer nation and now Atlanta is one of the leading cities in that soccer nation. I would feel pretty good about it if I were one of the city leaders.

Q: Will Atlanta host next year’s All-Star Game?

A: Possibly. We have some work to do. We are spending a lot of time thinking about that. It would be a great market to host the all-star game. We sold out Soldier Field in Chicago over the summer.

If we were going to hold it here, I would imagine we would break the (attendance) record.

Q: Is Atlanta United the story of the year in MLS?

A: It is. It’s the story in pro sports. I’m proud to say that.

This stadium will be the stadium of the year in our industry. 

This team will be the team of the year. It ought to be. It’s proving that it’s defying everybody’s expectations as to what soccer can be in this market, what this stadium can look like.

Q: Did you do the Viking clap?

A: I did. I think it’s pretty cool. I video’d it. I sent it to a bunch of guys I work with and to our social team.

These kinds of things get us really pumped up: To see a fan and soccer-supporter culture in a market that didn’t have an MLS team until now. 

It’s got some soccer history. I was at an investment conference over the weekend and people were talking about MLS. 

One gentlemen pulled me aside and said don’t’ just walk up to Arthur’s suite. Walk around the concourses and see the energy that’s going on in the stadium. I did that. It’s good. 

Q: If you had to pick one best practice from Atlanta United that you could recommend to any of the expansion candidates, what would it be?

A: It is a top-down and bottom-up commitment to making this team the best professional sports team in the country, not just the best soccer team.

They really, really wanted this club to represent what’s great about Atlanta, what’s great about Arthur and his family, what’s great about their brand and what that brand represents, Unite and Conquer. They did everything right. They got on it a couple of years earlier. They built a big stadium. They hired the right people. They hired the right coach. They signed a bunch of great young players.

That’s a blueprint for success.

You can’t do that in every market. You don’t have two years to build your team, but many of our expansion markets will have that runway. They ought to be able to deliver this for us.

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