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MLS Southern Expansion: Would Atlanta Support Pro Soccer?

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Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber gave a State of the League talk yesterday, and mentioned expansion into Atlanta and other southeastern cities. MLS currently has 16 teams, with three more set to join in the next two years: the Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps FC, and the Montreal Impact. The league is all but set on adding another New York team, and then hopes to turn its attention southward.

We already have the Atlanta Beat of the WPS, two NPSL teams in Atlanta and Marietta, college teams, and others, so there's certainly at least something of a soccer market here. Plus Atlanta has made the cut as a 2022 World Cup bid city. Forty years ago Manchester City manager Joe Mercer called Atlanta "the most soccer-wise city in the United States," for what that's worth.

Garber mentions expansion into Atlanta as already being under discussion, along with Miami, Orlando, and Tampa. Throughout his talk Garber stressed the importance of rivalries, citing lively Pacific Northwest rivalries and the New York Red Bulls desire for a New York City rival.

I don't know how much rivalry sentiment an Atlanta team could work up with a bunch of Florida teams. In pro baseball and football, Florida teams would rank third at best on the Atlanta fan's most-hated list. Atlanta Hawks fans would be more likely to think of the Orlando Magic as a nemesis rather than a rival. There's the Georgia Bulldogs vs. Florida Gators rivalry, but Jacksonville is like half a planet closer to our part of the world than Miami is. Seriously, we can drive to Michigan in the same amount of time it takes to get to Miami.

Tampa works better, based on the Atlanta Thrashers and Atlanta Falcons, but Charlotte teams seem to be the best bet as far as developing rivalries goes. It's not a rivalry if road fans don't show up, and getting to Charlotte involves half the distance and a one-line list of driving directions. Plus going to Florida feels like leaving the country.

The biggest question, though, is whether Atlanta can take on another pro team. You know the knock against all our pro teams: attendance. In 2010, MLS teams averaged around 16,000 fans per night. That would be almost 2,000 more than the Hawks are currently drawing.

But what we lack in attendance we make up for in TV money as the ninth-biggest market nationwide. Or at least we think we do.

What do you think about MLS in Atlanta?


Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.