Atlanta exec embraces challenge of building club from ground up
Club president Darren Eales, who played in the United States and later worked as an executive in English football, has had the rare task of creating a new club from scratch and says it has been a heady experience.
"It is like playing fantasy football in a way. Sometimes I wake up and have to pinch myself," Eales told AFP in an interview.
"I love soccer, it's a great game and to have a chance to build a team from scratch is a real privilege. I was at Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion before Atlanta, clubs that have been around over 125 years, so this is a totally unique proposition to be able to come to a club and start everything from scratch," he says.
"No name, no branding, no kit, no players, no coaches, no history, so that was the unique challenge," adds Eales.
It wasn't, however, a solo effort. Atlanta are bankrolled by Arthur Blank, founder of the Home Depot chain of DIY stores and owner of the Atlanta Falcons NFL team. They will share the Falcons' new Mercedes Benz stadium.
Given NFL teams have only eight home games in each regular season, there is an obvious benefit in having another club call the stadium home, but Eales says Blank sees other benefits.
"What he saw was the growth of soccer -- particularly that demographic, the younger, Millennial and Hispanic demographic.
"He was building a new stadium so it was perfect to have a franchise that could take advantage of that venue," he said.
Eales was the first employee of the club and said he expected his initial work to be focused on persuading the local population of the attractions of the game. But he quickly discovered there was plenty of passion already there.
"We have had a core of avid fans from the start and all we have done is grassroots marketing to them and they have been our ambassadors.
"Three months ago we broke the Seattle Sounders' record with 22,000 season tickets sold and that continues to rise. And we still have three months to go before we start playing," he said.
The new stadium will hold over 70,000 for NFL games but has been designed to operate at a lower capacity for MLS matches without empty seats in sight. The aim is to deliver American soccer fans the kind of atmosphere they see at European venues.
- Global game -
"Everyone (in the US) understands that soccer is a global game," Eales said. "It used to be the 'commie sport' ... now you have this younger generation, this new audience that love soccer, watch it on television, whether it is Premier League, Bundesliga, Mexican Liga MX, they can now go to their local MLS team and the atmosphere will be incredible."
There will be a distinctly Latin-American flavor to the team with several players already signed from South America and the club's first coach being Gerardo 'Tata' Martino -- the former Barcelona and Argentina national team coach.
Some MLS clubs have tried to attract fans by bringing in 'marketing signings' such as David Beckham at LA Galaxy, Frank Lampard at New York City FC and Didier Drogba at Montreal Impact, but Eales says the impressive season ticket sales mean that Atlanta donât need to make a splash with a big name.
"It's now the case that if we were to sign a Premier League player near the end of his career there would almost be a revolt. We are very much focused on helping Tata be as competitive as he can from the start," he said.
Martino has coached Lionel Messi amongst others, but Eales says the coach, too, is relishing the chance to begin at the beginning.
"For him, like for me, it was the chance to do something from scratch. When would you ever get the chance to start a team like that and set the style of a club?"