It was only about a month ago that MLS commissioner Don Garber made public plans to expand the league to 24 teams by 2020. Just this last week, word started to trickle out that three of those markets have already been spoken for. With Orlando being the most obvious expansion city and David Beckham seemingly dead set on bringing the league back to Miami, all signs are now pointing to Atlanta being the third city.
A day after word first came out that Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank was in "significant discussions" with MLS, Sports Illustrated was able to get some hard details about what is actually being planned. While there's still plenty of reason to be skeptical, the plans suggest this is not just some pet project either.
Apparently, Blank is willing to spend significant amounts of money out of his own pocket to not just build a new football stadium for the Falcons, but he's making sure that it's designed so that soccer can easily be played there. The field will be extra wide, there will be separate locker rooms and there will be a system in place to essentially cover the upper deck and turn convert the facility to a somewhat intimate 27,000-seat stadium. It would also be in transit-friendly downtown Atlanta.
In a lot of ways, this seems very similar to the situation the Vancouver Whitecaps are currently in. BC Place has a similar setup in which the upper tier is covered, and it really does help the facility feel much smaller than it really is
There's almost no question that Blank's bank account would be a very welcome addition to MLS, as the founder of Home Depot is worth about $1.6 billion. Writing a $75 million expansion fee check would not be a problem.
It also makes sense that MLS would want to expand to the Southeast in this manner. Putting three teams in the South would create instant rivalries and also immediately improve the league's ability to increase the asking price on TV deals, as about 70 million people live in the region (excluding Virginia).
This kind of targeted expansion obviously comes with some risk, though. The NHL expanded into the South with similar hopes, and while that paid off with an almost immediate increase in TV revenue, none of the teams have been unqualified successes. Historically, the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators and Carolina Hurricanes have all struggled at the gate and the Atlanta Thrashers marked the second failed attempt to bring hockey to the South's largest city. It should also be said that the attendance has improved markedly for the four remaining teams, though.
In any case, this seems to leave just one spot remaining for the next wave of MLS expansion. San Antonio would seem to have a significant head start on other cities that have shown some interest -- as they have already shown an ability to draw significant numbers and already have a stadium capable of expanding -- but there also doesn't seem to be any rush.