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New Atlanta Beat stadium a symbol of longevity for team, league

The Kennesaw State University Soccer Stadium opens Sunday when the Atlanta Beat host Sky Blue FC in a historic match for women’s soccer.  Although Atlanta is a 2010 expansion team and has played just four WPS games thus far, the club is setting a standard for future WPS business models by getting into its own stadium in year one.

Major League Soccer has spoken of the importance of teams playing in self-controlled soccer-specific stadiums for over a decade and now has venues such as Red Bull Arena, The Home Depot Center and Toyota Park to boast about.  The soccer-specific stadium is said to be the ticket to a successful business model for domestic teams in a country where soccer still lacks respect.  The construction of the KSU Soccer Stadium just outside of Atlanta should be no different.

Well, it is slightly different.  Instead of a Major League Soccer team moving into the new digs, the Atlanta Beat represent the first WPS team to play in a stadium specifically built for a women’s team.

Atlanta (0-3-1, 1 pt.) may be struggling early in its inaugural season, but off the field the Beat are winning mightily.  Sunday’s stadium opening will represent the single best moment in this league’s short history (save the launch of the league itself) and will be a critical component to the longevity of WPS.

“Sunday’s home opener in Atlanta at KSU Soccer Stadium is one of the biggest moments in the development of our league since we launched last March,” WPS Commissioner Tonya Antonucci said. “Sports-specific stadiums have been crucial to the long-term success and growth of all leagues – both young and established ones – and we’re incredibly pleased to have one of our own teams build a new stadium in their first year as a team and in the second year overall for WPS.”

At 8,300 seats and cost of $16.5 million, the investment in women’s soccer is clearly strong.  The appeal of the facility will help boost attendance in Atlanta and raise the league’s profile amongst other soccer fans that remain unconvinced about the quality of WPS.  Fans of MLS seem to view soccer-specific stadiums as a critical component to a franchise’s (and league’s) future, so KSU Soccer Stadium should add legitimacy to some of the doubters.  MLS began play in 1996 and did not see the completion of Columbus Crew Stadium, the first soccer-specific venue in the league, until 1999.

Of course just having a stadium does not mean people will automatically show up.  Crew Stadium has had its empty moments, and Pizza Hut Park outside of Dallas and Dick’s Sporting Goods Park outside of Denver are both currently going through some tough times with some extremely sparsely attended games.

What is guaranteed by a soccer-specific stadium is the opportunity for the Beat to control its own schedule and stadium revenue, which should provide a quicker path to breaking even and operating a successful business.

It would be unfair to expect Atlanta to sell-out the 8,300 seat stadium on any type of regular basis when the average WPS attendance is only about 4,500.  However, the stadium’s aesthetic appeal and symbolism of a long-term commitment from the Beat and WPS should help boost interest in both.

The key for Atlanta will be putting a good product on the field and proving that its team is “The Best in the World.”  For WPS, making similar strides in other markets is critical to the long-term success of the league.  Soccer-specific stadiums do not just provide long-term benefits to a team’s bottom line but also evoke a sense of professionalism that WPS is striving for.

All of that will be on display Sunday during a truly special moment for women’s sports, where a stadium will open specifically for a Women’s Professional Soccer team – not a men’s team, not a women’s basketball team, but a women’s soccer team.

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