Arthur Blank’s MLS team could make it here

As we know, Atlanta is a funny sports town. We love our college football, but the biggest college football team based inside the Perimeter struggles to fill Bobby Dodd Stadium. We like our Braves, but they’ve finished among the top 10 in attendance once since 2000. Our almost-certainly-playoff-bound NBA team ranks 28th in attendance, ahead of only Philadelphia and Milwaukee, holders of the league’s two worst records. Both of our NHL teams are in Canada.

We’re really good at building stadiums — and tearing them down to build newer ones — but we’re pretty lousy at packing them. So why should we hold out hope that Arthur Blank’s MLS franchise will succeed where other Atlanta sporting enterprises have failed?

Because the MLS isn’t quite like other sports and other leagues. It’s pro soccer and right about here you’re saying, “Hey! This is the USA! We hate soccer!”

And maybe you do. But there’s a chance your neighbor doesn’t.

Bob Hope was the Braves’ publicist on that night 40 years ago when Hank Aaron hit No. 715. Hope would later take a job in New York but returned 20 years ago to start his own firm. Here’s what he says: “Atlanta has become an international city since the Olympics. When I left to go to New York, people were either black or white. When I moved back, it was very international, very diverse.”

Soccer, as you’ve doubtless heard, is the world’s most popular sport. (Ask Coca-Cola how important the World Cup is to its marketing.) People who grew up playing and watching soccer don’t suddenly forget the game when they emigrate here. “There’s a void in their life with them not being able to see it on a regular basis,” Hope said.

An MLS team in Atlanta could help fill that void. No, the league doesn’t feature teams the caliber of Barcelona or Bayern Munich or Boca Juniors, but enough just-past-their-prime stars have graced the MLS — David Beckham, to name the biggest — to give it flavor. And many more folks in these United States have come to care about the sport where you can’t use your hands in a way they didn’t back in the olden days of the NASL and the Atlanta Chiefs.

Two generations of youth soccer players have since become wage-earners. World soccer, which once could be tracked only by those who pressed their ear against a shortwave radio to monitor the BBC World Service, is available for viewing via most basic cable packages. An average American 12-year-old is more apt to recognize the world’s best soccer player (Lionel Messi, the Argentine who plays for Barcelona) than the world’s best baseballer (Mike Trout, the Jersey guy who plays for Anaheim). Only one of them has appeared in an ad with Kobe Bryant, and it’s not the Angel.

Let’s be clear: The MLS isn’t going to draw NASCAR-sized crowds, not here or anywhere. (Then again, NASCAR isn’t drawing the way it did. And didn’t Atlanta Motor Speedway lose one of its annual races to Kentucky?) But if you fuse the elements — Atlanta as an international city plus Atlanta as a hotbed of youth soccer — Blank’s team should draw enough paying customers to pay the light bill.

Certainly it won’t hurt for the new team in the new sport to bear the Blank imprimatur. We can carp that his Falcons haven’t won a Super Bowl, but nobody can suggest that it’s for the lack of effort and resources. Alongside distant Liberty Media and the dizzy Atlanta Spirit, Blank has no competition as Best Owner In Town.

There are some notions that sound doomed from the start. (Georgia State football, for one.) Atlanta as an MLS city makes sense. The timing is right — a new Blank-owned team in Blank’s shiny new stadium — and this much-lampooned sports market is as ready as it’ll ever be.

Soccer fans aren’t necessarily “sports fans” in the old-school sense. Soccer fans might care nothing about baseball or basketball or American football. But it’s worth noting that 68,212 tickets were sold for a midweek exhibition — or “friendly,” as soccer folks say — between Mexico and Nigeria at the Georgia Dome last month. Note also that the Braves issued a release Monday morning stressing that tickets remained for Tuesday night’s home opener at 50,000-seat Turner Field.

Yes, that’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. (The Braves play 81 home games, while Mexico-Nigeria was a one-shot.) But that’s also the point. Soccer isn’t like the sports we Atlantans have come to know and, in many cases, to shun. It’s a different sport that will cater to a different audience. It could make it here.