A healthy crowd of fans flows into the Georgia Dome before an international friendly soccer match between Mexico and Nigeria on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. An announcement that Atlanta will get a Major League Soccer expansion franchise is scheduled for April 16 in Atlanta. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: Hyosub Shin
Photo: Hyosub Shin

MLS is coming to Atlanta

A Major League Soccer expansion franchise is coming to Atlanta.

An announcement is scheduled for April 16 in Atlanta, a person with knowledge of the situation said Sunday. The Atlanta team would become the 22nd franchise in MLS and would open play in 2017, which is also when the new $1 billion downtown stadium is scheduled to open.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank has been pursuing a franchise for several years. Both sides have acknowledged that they have been in deep discussions but neither seemed to have a timetable.

A Major League Soccer official issued this statement on Sunday: “We are continuing discussions with Arthur Blank to bring a Major League Soccer expansion team to Atlanta; however, we have not finalized an agreement at this time.”

A spokeswoman for Blank hasn’t responded to an email.

The announcement will likely happen in the afternoon somewhere in the downtown area, according to the person.To coincide with the announcement, organizers are hoping to have a fan festival that will be attended by soccer dignitaries and local government officials.

Atlanta has a long and checkered history with the world’s most popular sport: starting with the now-defunct Chiefs in the late 1960s and continuing with the Silverbacks, who currently play in the North American Soccer League.

But the sport seems to have found a foothold in the metro Atlanta area.

There are 88.5 million soccer fans in the United States and 24.4 million participants, according to the United States’ failed bid to host the 2022 World Cup. There are more than 100,000 players, coaches or officials registered with the Georgia Soccer Association. That doesn’t include other associations in the state and the hundreds to thousands of unregistered players in Hispanic-based leagues.

Atlanta has successfully hosted several international games at the Georgia Dome in the past five years. Last month’s game exhibition game between Mexico and Nigeria resulted in 68,212 tickets sold, a record for the sport in the city.

Major League Soccer seems to also have found a foothold in the country:

  • It is in the midst of its 19th season, making it the longest running professional soccer league in U.S. history.
  • Its average attendance this year of 19,035 fans (as of April 3) is higher than the NBA’s average of 17,348 during the 2013 season.
  • It generally ranks among the top-10 in average league attendance in the world.
  • Its games are televised are in more than 100 countries.
  • Fourteen of the league’s 19 teams own their own stadiums, which is an important financial piece.

Adding Atlanta, a top-10 TV market, would be another step in the league’s growth and would also help Blank, who needs revenue streams from the new stadium.

MLS needs to continue to develop teams in the Southeast, where until recently it didn’t have a foothold. Orlando agreed to a $70 million expansion and was added in November last year as the 21st franchise (it will open in 2015) and Miami is expected to be added as the 23rd team. Atlanta’s expansion fee is thought to be closer to what Orlando agreed to pay, compared to the $100 million that New York agreed to pay to become the league’s 20th team. It will begin play in 2015.

The league isn’t done. MLS Commissioner Don Garber has said many times that he wants his league to reach 24 teams by 2020.

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