Arthur Blank has done pretty well in hardware. And has had his moments in football, although the less said about the Falcons now, the better.
Saturday night, another rather late-life venture, Atlanta United, plays for MLS’ championship in just its second season of existence. The man who co-founded Home Depot built a window onto the global culture of soccer and challenged this southern city’s tastes in what makes for great sport.
In return, Atlanta has declared that it very much has liked what it has seen.
The 76-year-old owner of Atlanta United and the Falcons, who has been around a little and witnessed a few remarkable things in his day, has found in a sport so foreign to him for much of his life a whole new level of fan engagement. Of the scene inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium when Atlanta United is home - as it will be Saturday - Blank said, “It’s hard to encapsulate that passion, that emotion, that energy. I’ve never experienced that in any sport or any venue, any concert or anything, in my entire life. It’s great to be a part of that.”
Awarded the franchise in 2014, hiring an elite front office and coaching staff, spending sums unheard of in the MLS on facilities and players, Blank very quickly built a model franchise. In response, Atlanta United won from the get-go in 2017, turning out record crowds. Saturday’s game against Portland is sure to be another record, with 70,000-plus expected for the MLS Cup. Forbes recently declared United to be the most valuable property in the league.
Thursday, two days before possibly claiming his first championship trophy as a team owner – in soccer, of all things – Blank spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his “other” team’s impact on the city and himself. Some of the responses were condensed for clarity and brevity.
Q. First of all, congratulations. You are an official soccer mogul now, being linked this week to rumors about buying Newcastle of the English Premier League.
A. “I have no idea where that came from.”
Q. So, there’s nothing to it? What, you don’t want fan bases on two continents telling you how to spend your money?
A. “Probably not. The opportunities to build this franchise, not just for Atlanta, but helping elevate soccer in North America, I think are tremendous. We’re working on other thoughts on things we can do, keep it a little closer to home.”
Q. Is it mind-blowing here that someone who has owned a NFL team since late 2001 is possibly poised to go on his first championship parade with a soccer team?
A. “I’d like to say it’s what we forecasted. We felt we were going to be successful. (Team President Darren Eales) will be the first to tell you that we thought it would take longer than this.”
Q. Having gone through a pretty traumatic experience 22 months ago at a big game (his Falcons blowing a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl, losing to New England), how tense do you suppose you’re going to be Saturday?
A. “I’m sure I’ll be tense. The other thing I’m sure of, whatever the score is, we’re not going to celebrate until the end of the match. We’ve been through that experience and it was very painful for our fans, very painful for the organization.”
Q. Well at least you will have the chance to be the home team in a championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Maybe not the one you thought when this year began (February’s Super Bowl is also here).
A. “We had hoped to play in (the Super Bowl), but we’ll be happy to be host and Atlanta will be a great host city.”
Q. Have you found a different sort of emotional connection to this team, one that you basically birthed, opposed to the Falcons, one that you bought with 35 years on its odometer?
A. “It’s like you asking me to look back to Home Depot. You always have a unique set of experiences and relationships with something you helped birth as opposed to something you inherited.
“I’m thrilled about all (the success) and I’m deeply appreciative of all that. So, I think it’s a little different feeling. But being able to compete in the Super Bowl in what most people would argue is the best professional sports league in the world is a unique opportunity and we hope to be back again.”
Q. Atlanta United defender Greg Garza had a quote the other day: “I never thought Atlanta would be a city that would make soccer this big.” How do you think Atlanta United has redefined Atlanta as a sports city?
A. “I don’t know that it has redefined Atlanta as a sports city. ... I’ve never been part of the camp that said Atlanta was not a great sports town. I always believed if you put a great product on the field, you give the fans a great experience, that they will respond to that.
“So, I’ve never had that negative view. I felt we could maximize the experience, the attendance, the success of our team if we took a positive attitude and took a look at all the opportunities we had and did it right from the very beginning.
Q. In the embryonic stages here, how many people told you soccer wouldn’t work in Atlanta?
A. “There were some people who were skeptical, but I didn’t give them a lot of audience, to be honest with you. My experience with soccer personally had been through my son Joshua and my wife’s two children, all who had played club soccer together or for different clubs. I had a good feeling for the pulse of soccer in Atlanta.
“(MLS Commissioner) Don Garber was a little concerned at a point 15 years ago. He wanted us to build a 20,000-capacity stadium out in the suburbs someplace. I felt like the demographics of Atlanta was changing, that downtown was going to become more important over time and we could incorporate it into our new stadium that we knew we’d eventually build.”
Q. Strange that in just a couple years here’s this franchise that has become the model for the league. Are you going to going to become the Patriots of MLS?
A. “God bless that should happen to me. We’d love to become the Patriots of the NFL as well as Major League Soccer. Robert Kraft’s had major success and he’s earned it.”
Q. How much has this Atlanta United season been a cushion for what has been a disappointing Falcons season?
A: “It hasn’t really. You don’t think of it as a cushion. We celebrate the incredible success with soccer and we have the same degree of pain that we have with the Atlanta Falcons. It’s not diminished really.
“It’s been a difficult year for Atlanta and the Falcons and the coaching staff, the players, the fans and our family. But I take a long-term view and know that we have the right people in leadership positions.”
Q. Is soccer a sport you’re comfortable enough with on a strategic level that you can question when things don’t go right?
A. “From a technical standpoint, what Darren and Carlos (Bocanegra, United’s technical director) and my son Joshua have forgotten, I’ll never learn. There are nuances to the game today that I appreciate and understand that I didn’t years ago.
“I see the flow of the game, I understand it. I understand what’s going on. I see fouls and penalties, see opportunities take place.”
Q. Did you have to be educated as a soccer fan?
A. Absolutely. I never played the sport. The only time I watched soccer growing up is when you’d turn on the television at 3 a.m., they had a blurry picture on from someplace in Europe, some guys running around. It was not a big American sport when I was a child – that’s a long time ago.”
Q. During a game, do you join in the chants?
A. “I do a version of it, not quite as loud as the chanters do it. I’m certainly chanting inside.”
Q. A very broad question, what do you think this team tapped into here, trying to explain the success?
A. “I think, No. 1 there is a tremendous amount of soccer played in Atlanta at the youth level and has been for many, many years. That hadn’t been tapped into.
“I think another factor is that the diversity of Atlanta has continued to grow significantly.
“The fact that the stadium is downtown, I think is a huge factor, both in terms of public transportation and the demographics of downtown.
“Beyond that, there has been the opportunity to be part of the birthing process of a new franchise in the city, in a sport that is a global sport. And seeing that the franchise from Day One has made the right significant decisions, the right significant investments.
“We respect the soccer fans so that when they walk into that stadium it doesn’t feel like a Falcons stadium. It feels like a Atlanta United stadium in every sense. They feel like they own that franchise and that’s the way we want them to feel.”
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