After the 3rd round of the US Open Cup, several teams made deals to give up their home games in exchange for cash considerations. Probably the biggest of these deals involved NASL side Atlanta Silverbacks and 3-time reigning USOC champions Seattle Sounders. In the aftermath of the deal, I decided to talk to Matt Stigall of ATL Wants MLS to get a feel from a fan’s perspective on the buyout and an update on his organization’s efforts to woo MLS.
Johnathon Sykes (JS): Tell me a little bit about yourself (personal link to ATL, what you do, teams you support, etc)
Matt Stigall (ATL): My name is Matt Stigall. I work in software marketing/sales. I lived in Atlanta for over 20 years, since I was 4 years old. I got into soccer about 4 years ago and I support US Soccer, Tottenham Hotspur, and the Atlanta Silverbacks (still).
JS: What is your organization doing to try to get MLS to ATL?
ATL: So far it has been only me doing about 95% of the work. It has mainly been running a petition (online and signatures) and running the Facebook page. We have been to numerous events in the Atlanta area to get our name out there. With it being mostly me and with no outside funding, it has been difficult to scale as I would like. The one highlight was having a plane fly over the Home Depot center before last year’s MLS Cup that read , “Dear Don, ATL wants to be the 20th team! www.atlwantsmls.com”. Crazy Omar paid for that. We have over 1,000 petition signatures and FB likes.
That is just the start. My main focus now is to make this an official organization with an officers’ board and incoming money to support greater initiatives. Our mission is to unite the existing soccer fans in the city and grow the sport to reach one common goal: provide passionate support for a future MLS team. My underlying motive is that I want thousands of fans singing “Georgia, On my Mind” before the team comes out, similar to Liverpool’s “You’ll never walk alone”. I get goosebumps thinking about it.
JS: A lot of people would say that Atlanta is not a viable city in the South for MLS because of a lack of a downtown stadium and lack of an investment group. Do you feel that’s an issue?
ATL: Currently that is an issue. I tell people we need 3 things to get a team: an owner, a stadium, and a fan base. The owner will be Arthur Blank. He hired Jim Smith as Atlanta Falcons CMO, who has extensive experience in managing MLS teams. He has made several public statements about owning an MLS team, including some a couple weeks ago about the new stadium being built downtown. Which brings me to my next point. Momentum is underway to build a new NFL stadium downtown with a lower bowl similar to Seattle’s stadium. Although I would prefer a soccer specific stadium, beggars can’t be choosers, and the ability to host a USMNT game in Atlanta would be epic (we haven’t hosted one since the ‘70s).
The fanbase also isn’t there. The Silverbacks have done a lot to damage their image in the city, even before this debacle. Regardless, the momentum was building before this. I almost prefer a few years to build a fanbase so that when we do get a team, there is greater passionate support.
Looking at the big picture, Atlanta is the biggest TV market in the US without an MLS team and the biggest city in the western hemisphere without a top level professional team. We have an extensive international demographic and one of the highest participation youth programs in the country. We also have many Fortune 500 companies who have shown their willingness to sponsor soccer (Home Depot and Coca Cola for one).
The one thing holding it back is what I call commuter fatigue. With one of the highest sprawl rates and longest commutes in the country, asking people to go to an event is difficult, ESPECIALLY on weeknights after they get home from work. There is also a lot of competition in for the entertainment dollar and time.
JS: Now that the venue deal has been finalized and the Atlanta Silverbacks are not playing Seattle at home, how do you feel about the decision made by the front office?
ATL: For me, this is just a total shame and makes a mockery of what could have been a great competition. My main goal with ATL Wants MLS is to grow the sport of soccer in the city of Atlanta so that it will have a large enough fan base to support an MLS team. This was a unique opportunity for both ATL Wants MLS and the Atlanta Silverbacks to gain some great exposure and grow the sport in the city. Of course, there is a business side to the decision, and the Silverbacks are pretty desperate for cash, but I feel like this could have truly been a turning point in Atlanta soccer. The team is in essence turning its back on its fans and players by making this decision. I will wait until I hear what the Silverbacks received before I make final judgement, and hopefully they received a TON to make up for the damage done to the fans.
Now that the deal has been released, it hasn’t helped much. The fans deserved a fan appreciation night anyways for the growing attendance for a struggling winless team. Improved player acquisitions is such a broad, general statement that we will have to wait and see. It reminds me of “player to be named later” in baseball trades. Finally, the friendly match vs. an MLS team? Please. So we trade home field advantage in the most important game in our history for a irrelevant friendly vs. an MLS reserve squad. Do they think we are stupid?
If they want to improve relations with the fan base, fix some broken bridges, and make lasting beneficial changes, here are some ideas:
1. Pay for a few fans (let’s say 10) to go out to Seattle next week to support the team.
2. Improve relations with the supporters groups. We were completely shut out of this. You made the release then went silent. That is unacceptable. There needs to be transparency and communication.
3. Some of the money should go towards the supporters groups to help them pay for banners, supplies, and other materials to help them grow.
4. Spend the money to purchase bleachers to put behind the East-side goal for all supporters groups to sit. It can’t be THAT much and a merging of the supporters groups into one section will help us grow and improve the atmosphere.
5. You need to make a public apology to your players and your fans. You gave up on them and the potential home field atmosphere we could have created.
6. Better PR. Don’t make a bland PR statement and then hide behind it for hours. Have a representative of the team be responsive and available to communicate with the fan base.
I would like to thank Matt and ATLWantsMLS for their time and hope that they are able to get more attention to Atlanta as an Southern candidate for Team 20. Living in Atlanta for several years and holding season tickets for last season, I hope that the current issue with the Silverbacks sale does not kill support for a NASL side that was two years removed from not existing at all from a playing standpoint.
(image courtesy of VisitAtlanta)