Atlanta also is likely to be on any short list of cities likely to win an MLS expansion franchise. Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who submitted a bid for an MLS team in 2008, is said to remain interested.
“Soccer is the international sport,” said Robin Loudermilk, president and CEO of Aaron’s and co-chairman of the CEO Soccer Cabinet. “For Atlanta to be a true international city, we have to have a soccer team.”
And the committee has its eye on hosting the NCAA men’s and/or women’s soccer championships.
While most of those professional and collegiate soccer opportunities have yet to be realized, Atlanta is a major center for amateur youth and adult soccer.
The city drew 650 youth teams to the Publix Atlanta Cup on Labor Day weekend, an amateur tournament staged on close to 100 soccer fields at 26 locations across the metro region.
About 30,000 people attended the event, some coming from as far north as New York and Ohio, said Rick Skirvin, executive director of Georgia Soccer, the nonprofit official state youth and adult association for soccer in Georgia.
Skirvin said hotels and restaurants across Atlanta benefited from the economic impact of such a large, yet scattered, contingent of soccer devotees.
While 650 teams constitutes a huge tournament, the CEO Soccer Cabinet has larger visions. To build the number of fields that would be needed to host 1,000 or more teams, the committee is eyeing a portion of 1,300 acres set aside as open space by developers of the planned Atlanta Beltline.
Brian Leary, president and CEO of Atlanta BeltLine Inc., said three multipurpose fields already under construction along the 22-mile corridor could be used for soccer.
Leary, another member of the committee who played on Georgia Tech’s soccer team during his college days, said becoming a mecca for amateur soccer would enhance Atlanta’s soccer reputation internationally, enhancing the World Cup bid and other efforts.
“We’re only constrained by the number of fields, and we’re getting close to the limit now,” he said.
Dean said that while other groups are taking the lead on specific soccer-related initiatives, including landing an MLS franchise and winning Atlanta a host spot for the World Cup, the CEO Soccer Cabinet has an important big-picture role to play.
“What this is is an effort to establish a broader strategic plan that helps augment what’s going on already and fill in the gaps,” he said. “The key is to make sure all the efforts are coordinated … and that the community sees the importance of this.”
Wayne Lord, a professor in international executive education at Georgia State University and president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, said it’s important to keep in mind that the committee’s ultimate aim is to widen the perception of Atlanta as an international city.
“Soccer is played everywhere,” Lord said. “Because of its international reach, Atlanta would be well-served to be in touch with, and engaged in, international soccer.”
“It’s not just sports,” Dean added. “It’s about positioning our city and building our city.”
The following list of current and potential future soccer happenings in Atlanta make a new committee of CEOs bullish on the city as a global soccer capital:
Atlanta Beat – women’s professional soccer team playing in Kennesaw
Aaron’s International Soccer Challenge – annual exhibition game at the Georgia Dome featuring high-profile international teams
Atlanta Silverbacks – inactive second-tier professional men’s soccer team planning to resume play next year
Major League Soccer – Atlanta interested in expansion franchise in U.S.-based men’s professional soccer league
World Cup – Atlanta bidding to become U.S. host city for 2018 or 2022 event
NCAA championships – Atlanta interested in hosting men’s and/or women’s college soccer championship tournaments
Publix Atlanta Cup – CEO Soccer Cabinet looking to expand amateur youth tournament
A recently formed committee calling itself the CEO Soccer Cabinet is working on a variety of fronts to boost the city to the top of the soccer world, from supporting Atlanta’s bid to become a U.S. host city for the World Cup to joining forces with Atlanta BeltLine Inc. in a plan to build enough soccer fields to lure more and bigger amateur tournaments.
Becoming the global soccer capital is big thinking for a city that has yet to land a Major League Soccer franchise, the largest market in the nation without an MLS team.
But for Atlanta, which came of age internationally by hosting the 1996 Summer Olympics, big thinking centered on sports isn’t new.
“It’s a bold, audacious goal,” said Clark Dean, senior managing director at corporate real estate firm Julien J. Studley Inc. and chairman of the CEO Soccer Cabinet’s planning subcommittee. “[But] Atlanta has a great history of achieving bold, audacious goals.”
Atlanta has been making noise in the soccer world both domestically and abroad for a couple of years.
The Atlanta Beat joined Women’s Professional Soccer this year as an expansion team, playing its home games at a new 8,300-seat soccer stadium on the campus of Kennesaw State University.
The Atlanta Silverbacks, a second-tier men’s pro soccer team, played in the United Soccer League until 2008 at a soccer-specific stadium in Chamblee before sitting out the 2009 and 2010 seasons. The Silverbacks, who have an active women’s team, plan to return next season.
Aaron’s Inc. served as title sponsor of July’s International Soccer Challenge at the Georgia Dome, pitting two international professional teams, a follow-up to two international exhibition matches last summer.
Of the six international teams that participated in the three games thus far, four were from Latin American countries. The Atlanta area is home to a large and growing Latino population, whose enthusiasm for the sport helped attract big crowds to the Dome and in the long run strengthens Atlanta’s case for becoming a major soccer market.
Atlanta is one of 18 American cities named as part of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s bid to host the World Cup in 2018 or 2022. Soccer’s international governing body is expected to award both tournaments in December.