Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank sits relaxed in a board room at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. With a bottle of soda near his left hand, Blank recently spent 20 minutes talking exclusively to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his MLS team, its aspirations and the reasons behind its rise to the level of the standard to meet in the league.
Blank hadn’t heard the phrase MLS 3.0, commonly applied to Atlanta United as the newest and best iteration of expansion franchises within the league.
But it resonated with him because he said, as he has many times, that from the franchise’s inception on April 17, he and those who work for the team have followed one guideline:
“We know if we do the right thing based on behavior for the right reasons to the people who are supporting us, we are going to get good success,” he said.
That seems to be working.
Atlanta United broke several attendance records last season and again leads the league this season. It became the first MLS expansion team since Seattle in 2009 to reach the playoffs last season. This season, it is one of the favorites to win the Supporters’ Shield, which would be its first trophy for on-the-field results, as well as the MLS Cup.
Blank touched on a number of subjects, some of which can be read here, including the women’s game, how the club will evolve, and if the $70 million price tag was a good buy.
Here is more of the conversation regarding Atlanta United and the city.
Q. Will Atlanta United start a women’s team to play in one of the professional sports leagues?
A. There hasn’t been any discussion. I would like to think aspirationally that it might be something at the right time to consider. My wife’s youngest daughter played, both club soccer and collegiately. I think the women’s national team has experienced great success and been great fun to watch. I have six kids of my own, three of which are strong women. They will have a vote in all of this. We will see over time. Right now, we will focus on what we are focusing on.
Q. How will the soccer fields at MARTA, and those being built by Target, help the sport grow in Atlanta?
A. We have one open at Five Points and another next week at West End. I think for a lot of reasons it’s incredibly important. It’s not a matter of efficiency and use of space. Soccer is a great game to break down barriers. It’s played in 209 countries throughout the world. I think that anything that can bring young people together in a team-like atmosphere without a tremendous amount of expense ... it’s great to create that kind of diversity, respect and inclusionary feelings about playing with people that aren’t exactly like you. It’s been a strength of America and at this time, if anything, we need more and more of that. Soccer is a great sport for that. The aspirations to play professionally is not really the issue. The issue is the aspiration to play, to be outside, to not be in front of a phone or device, and to be playing with people that represent diversity is great.
Q. After everything the team is accomplishing this season, will it matter if Atlanta United doesn’t win the MLS Cup?
A. Will it matter? Sure. We are a competitive team. Competitive coach. A team president who is probably as competitive as I am. He doesn’t like to lose at anything, much like I don’t. Yes, we will be disappointed. We’ve had a great year. We want to be in the playoffs. We want to go deep in the playoffs. Unlike the NFL, it’s not a single game of elimination. In the NFL, sometimes, the ball isn’t round and it may do some funny things and you may end up losing a game that you should not have lost. Soccer can be different. We’d like to play as deep as we can, as well as we can, and if we get to the MLS Cup, we’ll get a chance to compete and be the best we can.
Q. What is the next step in the club’s evolution, and what role will you play?
A. I think we continue to seek out ways, whether it be our AU2 team, or our developmental teams, to have them more and more competitive for not just one or two years but for a longer time, to continue to help build the sport throughout America. When the MLS All-Star game was here, the commissioner hosted a dinner for owners and others from around the world. The commissioner asked me to comment with a sense of humility, which is easy for me to do, about some of the reasons that I thought we are successful. Our aspiration would be to help – you know a rising tide can lift all boats in Major League Soccer– is to create an atmosphere that all clubs can learn from what we consider our really best practices. Not that all of our practices are the best, but in certain areas they are really good and we see results. That success, we would like to see that translated where it challenges other organizations to raise their bar. How do we raise standards for everybody in United States soccer? Long term, from a developmental standpoint, that includes our national teams. Our academies should become more competitive and produce more talent for our national team. Those are our aspirations near term. Beyond that, look at any opportunities that come across our desk that make sense. My role in all of that hasn’t really changed. I’m part of any strategic decisions. I try to understand what we are doing and why we are doing it and make sure it represents our core values in every way off the pitch and to continue to grow the sport in any way that we can.
Q. With all the jerseys, the accolades, and the interest, looking back on the franchise’s price tag of $70 million, was that a good buy? Was it a bargain?
A. I don’t know if it was a good buy or bargain. When we agreed to the franchise valuation, I’ve never looked at it this as an investment. I’ve looked at it as this is something that fits into the bandwidth of what we do really well. It’s another way to be an asset to the community. It’s another way to engage the community. It’s another way to make people happy. That sounds silly, but a large part of what we do is make people happy, whether it’s soccer games, or shopping at our PGA stores or staying at our guest ranches. One of the joys of this business is serving others and seeing their response. If you look at it today in the market place you’d say it’s a good buy, but we try to do the right things for the right reasons. It’s basically what our core values are about. None of our six driving core values has anything to do with economics or financial returns or ROIs, ROSs. We know if we do the right thing based on behavior for the right reasons to the people who are supporting us, we are going to get good success. How that eventually translates to the market place is good.