During the week of the 2018 MLS All-Star Game in Atlanta this summer, MLS Commissioner Don Garber asked Atlanta United’s Arthur Blank to address his fellow owners during a private dinner and share the team’s ingredients for success.
Blank ran through several items, such as how the team has utilized Mercedes-Benz Stadium, its marketing strategy, its approach to player transfers and acquisitions, and the organization’s steadfast belief about treating the fans with respect and giving them a first-class experience.
But he also shared a lesson that he learned from another business he started, Home Depot, and which he reiterated in his family office ahead of his team’s appearance in the MLS Cup Final on Dec. 8:
“Too often in business, even in soccer, there are too many self-imposed limits on what is defined as success. We’re sending a message to our players and fans that we’ve set a very high bar for ourselves, and we’re not trying to contain it.”
Atlanta United’s 2-0 victory over the Portland Timbers to win the MLS Cup showcased how high the club has placed that bar just two years into its existence. Indeed, it is now the model MLS club, both on and off the field.
The team comfortably led the league in attendance and now owns MLS records for single-game and full-season total and average attendance. For the second straight season, Atlanta United led MLS clubs in merchandise sold. And team President Darren Eales said that based on the club’s early projections, revenue this year is well over 100 percent higher than originally forecast.
“I think we’re still in the growth cycle, and I think it’s going to be at least a couple more years until we hit more of a mature business level,” Eales said. “But the question for us now is how can we further expand the pie — are there opportunities for us outside of Atlanta? Whether that’s internationally, nationally or more regionally; that’s the elephant we’re looking at.”
For MLS clubs, revenue from ticket, food and beverage sales make up a large chunk of a team’s business, as well as sponsorship and merchandise. There are some opportunities within those areas locally, whether it’s through championship merchandise or by deepening its engagement with certain demographics in the Atlanta community. However, the club’s aspirations go well beyond the city limit.
“We know we have a lot of opportunity here — Atlanta is a big city — but we’re getting to the point that we can tell a strong story that goes well beyond just the local market and our DMA,” said Catie Griggs, vice president of business operations.
Atlanta United was the most nationally televised MLS club this season, and on the official MLS app, Atlanta United is by far the most frequent choice for favorite team. Its success on the field and off has even drawn attention from overseas.
“We’re taking some steps to be an established national brand,” Griggs said.
That has led to increased conversations with companies across the globe regarding corporate sponsorships. With MLS allowing teams to have a company logo on their sleeve starting in 2020, Griggs said there has been plenty of interest from companies that want to unite with United.
The team already has announced that it will open the full seating capacity of the stadium six times next year after doing so for five regular-season games this year, and both Eales and Griggs said they will consider doing it more. However, they also both noted the role that a passionate crowd has played in fueling the team’s success, and that the organization would not risk devaluing that while chasing a few extra ticket sales per game. The team has more than 37,000 season-ticket holders, with a wait list that goes into the thousands.
The big carrot for the team on the revenue side is the overarching league media rights deal, due to expire in 2022. Eales said that deal contributes about 10 percent of the team’s overall revenue, compared to Premier League clubs where broadcast fees might make up 70 percent of their totals.
“We see ourselves as a big part of growing that — the MLS Cup is a good example: full stadium between two teams with great fan bases on big Fox that gets a good broadcast number,” Eales said. “We can show people how exciting soccer can be.”
Blank said he’s extremely bullish on the growth of both the club and the league — part of the reason he was eager to get involved in the first place.
“When you look at the revenues in MLS and make a comparison to the NFL, there’s a very long way to go, but you need to look at the trend lines not only for the league but for soccer in America and Canada,” Blank said. “Over time, there’s going to be increases in television ratings and in attendance, and other franchises will see that there are ingredients of success here in Atlanta that is available to them and their markets.”
But asked what’s next for Atlanta United, Blank had a simple answer: “We’re going to get better every year.”