By all appearances, Major League Soccer is destined for a great debut in Atlanta. The team is closing in on their initial goal of 5,000 so-called "charter members," and those people have pledged to purchase nearly 14,500 season tickets. If all those tickets are actually sold, that would give the still-unnamed MLS team one of the largest season-ticket bases in the entire league.
What's really remarkable is that this team won't begin play until 2017, when their state-of-the-art, mixed-use stadium will be ready to open. In the meantime, owner Arthur Blank has pushed his goals even higher, expanding the potential charter club to 10,000 and challenging fans to buy up 11,000 more season tickets. If they are able to get to 24,500, they will surpass the Seattle Sounders as the largest season-ticket base for an expansion team in MLS history and will be well on their way to selling out the planned 29,000-seat capacity for the entire season.
All of this is undeniably bold and impressive, especially considering how much skepticism surrounded their bid at the start (mea culpa). And yet, it also feels like a bit too much, a bit too soon.
Granted, this falls under the category of "good problem to have," but there is at least some reason to think that all of this could be a problem on some level. As mentioned, Atlanta's MLS team is not scheduled to take the field until 2017. That means no games for the rest of this year, no games next year and that we probably won't even start to hear about potential signings until 2016.
It's at least worth wondering what Atlanta will do to maintain this momentum for two more years, to speak nothing of making sure that all those charter members follow through on their promised purchases after plucking down a mere $50 to reserve their spots. Sure, there's a name still to be picked, a crest to be designed and uniforms to be paraded about. But all of these people are presumably excited about the prospect of watching soccer and there will be precious little of that to tide them over between now and the 2017 preseason.
Of course, it doesn't have to be that way. The Atlanta MLS team can look to the team they are hoping to draw the most comparisons with as a good example: the Sounders.
The Sounders, of course, predate their MLS existence. Not only were they competing in the original NASL, but they continued on in the A-League and then the USL. That USL team was still going strong when the Sounders got their MLS expansion team in 2007. Owner Adrian Hanauer considered disbanding the team in 2008 and focusing entirely on getting ready for MLS, but instead saw an opportunity to build excitement.
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The Sounders only averaged about 3,400 fans per game while playing mostly at Starfire Sports Complex (better known now for their chosen home stadium for U.S. Open Cup matches), but they were able to keep their core fans engaged and provide a bridge to MLS. They also got an inkling of what MLS could look like when they hosted the Portland Timbers at then-Qwest Field, drawing a crowd of more than 10,000 for the early-season game.
Although the Atlanta MLS team is effectively starting from scratch, there should be nothing stopping them from either starting a USL-Pro team that could then be their reserve side or even partnering with the NASL's Atlanta Silverbacks. Both options would allow them to activate their fan base at real matches and give them a chance to start doing some face-to-face marketing while building momentum toward their 2017 debut.
Atlanta has already made the doubters look ridiculous in showing that there is, at the very least, considerable interest in MLS. But in order for them to fulfill all this glorious promise they are going to have to do something bold. This would qualify.