Arthur Blank’s commitment helps Atlanta shine as a soccer city

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Arthur Blank’s latest achievement in the Atlanta sports landscape: helping bring the U.S. Soccer Federation from Chicago to Atlanta. It will build a new headquarters and a national training center large enough to accommodate its 27 clubs.

Blank, who is donating $50 million to the efforts, has seen his visions realized with Atlanta United’s immense popularly. Soccer has continued growing its popularity in Georgia and across the South. Atlanta United’s resounding success – it has led MLS in attendance every season of its existence and won a championship in 2018 – is a testament to that.’

“Soccer has become such a meaningful part of the fabric of this city,” Blank said. Asked about his appreciation for the sport, he added: “I love the game itself. I probably don’t fully appreciate it from a technical standpoint. What I do fully appreciate, to me, what makes it a beautiful sport, it brings together people and a sense of community.”

Consider that before Blank’s push for a club, Atlanta wasn’t on the MLS radar as it expanded. The South, of course, is known for its obsession with American football. But over the years, MLS has planted roots in the South and experienced success doing so.

But no team has been a grand slam like Atlanta United. And soccer fans are responsible for the most passionate crowds at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“Atlanta wasn’t on any MLS business plan from the very beginning,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “I knew Arthur when I was a young guy at the NFL (16 years in multiple roles), and we kept in touch throughout the early 2000s. (Blank) said ‘Hey, I’m going to be building this new stadium. I promise you it will be one of the great stadiums in our country if not the world. Let’s bring MLS in.’ I said, ‘I don’t see it, Arthur.’ We did not, at that time, have a team south of Washington, D.C. We weren’t sure about the Southeast. We’d folded a team in Miami. So it wasn’t something I thought would be successful. I’ll never forget what Arthur said to me. ‘One thing I learned when I left New York was that New Yorkers think you know everything, but you don’t. Atlanta is an exploding city that has an enormously passionate sports community. It’ll be a great soccer city. My stadium will be packed.

“And as I’ve thought a lot about this over the last couple of months leading up to the national training center, this team matters here. It matters politically. It matters culturally. The hip-hop community that the mayor was talking about comes out to our games. We have a diversity in our fan base here that I think is everything we’ve always wanted. I’m very pleased. This team would’ve had 50,000 regardless of who they’re playing. And I think their best days are still ahead.”

Look at Southern soccer now. It has the two largest MLS stadiums (Atlanta and Charlotte) and the national training center. Nashville (2018), Orlando (2015) and Miami (2020) have teams, the latter of which employs Lionel Messi, perhaps the most famous current athlete in the world. Atlanta and Miami are host cities for the 2026 World Cup.

Garber said when he introduced Atlanta United in 2014, he knew that to truly be a national league, MLS needed a presence in the South. Now: “The South is really shining bright in our sport,” he said. “It’s going to grow everywhere, but boy, it really is exploding in Atlanta.”

Indeed, Atlanta is an increasingly crucial city in American soccer. Blank’s earliest beliefs are yielding results.

“This is a heartwarming day to hear Arthur Blank talk about his commitment to the sport,” Garber said. “To have our federation speak so glowingly about the city of Atlanta. I don’t think it happens without Atlanta United. And Atlanta United doesn’t happen without Arthur Blank.”