Are the Atlanta Silverbacks endangered?
Saturday night at the Atlanta Silverbacks match against the San Antonio Scorpions, you’d never suspect the Silverbacks, a founding franchise of the new North American Soccer League, might be in danger of going extinct.
Multi-generational tailgates and impromptu juggling circles filled the parking lot. The supporter groups Terminus Legion, Atlanta Ultras, and Westside 109 led full-throated chants as the near-capacity crowd filed into Silverbacks Park. Millennials were talking Champions League over beers at the stadium bar, Silverbacks Pub. And oodles of young fans, many donning their local club team jerseys, cheered on the home team.
However, it’s only been a few weeks since a bombshell dropped on NASL in the form of a federal indictment. Contained within the indictment were allegations that Aaron Davidson, the head of Traffic Sports USA and until recently the Chairman of the Board of NASL, had offered CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb millions in bribes in exchange for the marketing rights for the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament. Webb has since been “provisionally dismissed” from CONCACAF’s top post and is fighting extradition from Switzerland. Meanwhile, Davidson was arrested in Miami, and after entering a not guilty plea in federal court in Brooklyn. According to the New York Daily News, he has begun negotiating with prosecutors for a plea deal.
The NASL suspended Davidson from his position as Chairman and cut ties with Traffic Sports, the league’s long-time financial benefactor. At least for now, NASL and the league-operated Silverbacks say they will continue to function normally.
It’s more tough news for the Silverbacks, who over the years have had struggled to succeed. Besides making the Soccer Bowl finals in 2013 and a few decent runs in the U.S. Open Cup, the team has had mediocre results. As of Saturday’s loss against the Scorpions, the Silverbacks currently sit at the bottom of the NASL standings.
Off the pitch, multiple owners have come and gone, including Traffic Sports for a time, until the NASL had to take the team over in December 2014. Six months later, the team’s future remains in limbo, but the league has committed to running the Silverbacks through the end of this season as they search for a new ownership group. “Currently, there are no new ownership updates,” general manager Andy Smith told CL. “The NASL’s primary focus is finding new ownership that would continue operating the team here in Atlanta. That has yet to happen, but we are all optimistic.”
If no local buyer is found soon, the league says it will entertain offers to move the team out of Atlanta. “If we can’t find local ownership, ” Bill Peterson, NASL Commissioner and interim Board Chair, said on a recent podcast, “the next step would be to look at relocation of the team to another group that’s interested in being in the league.”
One reason the NASL can’t seem to find an interested buyer is because the team will no longer be, as the Silverbacks tag lines goes, “Georgia’s only professional soccer team.” The Silverbacks will soon compete with Arthur Blank’s MLS Atlanta franchise for soccer fan dollars. MLS kicks off in Atlanta in 2017, with advantages including a brand-new state-of-the-art stadium, higher payroll, and a better on-field product.
NASL officials believe Atlanta can support two professional soccer teams, arguing the MLS team will raise awareness of soccer locally and spark a rivalry, and in the process lift ticket sales. Terminus Legion co-founder JR Francis is also bullish, saying the Silverbacks could cater to suburban families and fans interested in a more intimate gameday experience. “I firmly believe that two soccer franchises can absolutely survive and thrive in Atlanta,” Francis told CL.
Yet it’s difficult to see how the NASL Silverbacks franchise survives this encroachment into their habitat. For one, the Silverbacks for years have struggled to remain profitable despite decent attendance and one of the lowest payrolls in NASL, even without having to share a market with an MLS rival. The New York Cosmos are the only NASL franchise to coexist in the same city with MLS. Looking back, it seems the Silverbacks days were numbered the moment Arthur Blank decided to start fresh rather than build off the current minor league soccer team’s brand and club history, as other MLS ownership groups have done in Orlando, Seattle, Portland, and soon, Minneapolis.
This doesn’t mean the Silverbacks will disappear completely if new ownership decides to skip town with the NASL franchise.
Boris Jerkunica, a tech entrepreneur and a former Silverbacks owner, still has the rights to the Silverbacks name, meaning he can always start up a new men’s team down the road. One option is to start a lower-tier division side in the National Premier Soccer League in which young local talent can launch their soccer careers. “The Atlanta Silverbacks are going to have a pro team participating in U.S. soccer,” Jerkunica said back in 2013. “The question is at what level.”
There’s also a chance Blank and Jerkunica could work together down the road. The Silverbacks met with Blank’s group when Jerkunica still owned the team. “We look forward to expanding on those preliminary meetings and speaking with their group further about ways we can achieve that continued growth,” the team said at the time. “I think a symbiotic relationship with the MLS team and the second team in Atlanta would be the best for everybody involved,” said Terminus Legion’s Francis.
Regardless of what happens this year, Jerkunica will also continue to own and operate Silverbacks Park, the multi-million dollar soccer facility he built at Spaghetti Junction where the Silverbacks have played off and on for nearly a decade. Jerkunica has always thought of his mission as creating a lasting soccer community in metro Atlanta, rather than just hosting a pro team in his stadium. “We were going to build a soccer club for adults,” Jerkunica has said. “Then, I had an opportunity to buy the Silverbacks. That was more of an afterthought.”
Jerkunica succeeded in his mission to build and cultivate metro Atlanta’s soccer culture. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say few have done more than Jerkunica to keep the Atlanta soccer flame burning. Silverbacks Park currently hosts more than 360 men’s, women’s, and co-ed adult teams as part of the successful amateur league. No matter what happens to the NASL franchise, Silverbacks Park will continue to be a gathering place, not only for the city’s weekend warriors, but for fans of all ages who may soon get to see the Atlanta Vibe, a new local women’s pro team, take the field in 2016.
Pro soccer in Atlanta has always lacked stability, going back to the 1960’s when the Atlanta Chiefs played at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Since that franchise’s spectacular failure, Atlanta has said goodbye to several indoor and outdoor pro soccer teams—the Attack, Lasers, Magic, and Ruckus —participating in an alphabet soup of leagues — AISA, NPSL, USISL, APSL, A-League, and USL.
But despite the uncertainty surrounding the Silverbacks and NASL, Arthur Blank’s team will be here for years to come, with one brand in one league, thanks to financially secure ownership and a spot in the thriving, well-established MLS. No matter what happens with the Silverbacks, Atlanta soccer fans can be confident pro soccer in metro Atlanta will not die out anytime soon.