The Atlanta Falcons will meet the New England Patriots in the NFL's Super Bowl LI at Houston’s NRG Stadium on Sunday. It’s a meeting of two of the best-run franchises in the NFL, which also happen to feature owners who will be competing head-to-head in MLS beginning this year.
One owner was a founding member of Major League Soccer, while the other is still a month away from making his MLS debut with his club. While each have their own unique relationship with their gridiron sibling, the New England Revolution – operated by the Kraft Sports Group – and Atlanta United FC, the newest addition to Arthur Blank’s AMB Sports + Entertainment, have both benefited in a variety of ways from their connection to the American football team down the hall, starting at the very top of the organizations.
“With the Kraft family, they’re big believers in family,” said Revolution goalkeeper Brad Knighton (below), who is entering his seventh season in New England. “It’s kind of like a brotherhood."
Robert and Jonathan Kraft met with the Revolution squad as they kicked off their 22nd MLS preseason in January, shortly after the Patriots clinched their seventh Super Bowl appearance in the last 15 years. The Revs have reached the MLS Cup final five times in the same span.
“It’s a pretty nice relationship, built around the fundamentals of what the Krafts are all about: family, loyalty, tradition – and winning," Knighton continued. "You put those things together you’re going to get a pretty good product.”
While the Revs enjoy their own ticketing, marketing, digital, communications and community relations departments, the two organizations pool certain front-office resources in a way that multiplies the MLS club’s reach. The two teams share legal, finance, information technology and events infrastructure under KSG’s umbrella.
In addition to the gameday venue itself, the Revs and Pats share some of the facilities at Gillette Stadium, most notably an indoor practice field used in inclement weather. Their locker rooms sit across a hallway from one another, and the teams often cross paths on their way to and from their respective training fields when their seasons overlap during the fall.
Though each team tends to focus on its own duties during work hours, a sense of common purpose is clear, especially when one team makes a deep run in the postseason:
After nearly a decade in English soccer’s upper reaches, Darren Eales was intrigued by the prospect of a new challenge when Blank offered him a leading role in his organization’s new MLS expansion club in 2014. But the NFL connection gave Eales pause as he contemplated leaving his director’s position at Tottenham Hotspur.
“The big thing for me in taking the job was, ‘Is this an organization that Arthur’s putting his full support behind, or is it just another part of his portfolio, or like a little brother that’s just there because you’ve got the stadium?’” recalled Eales in a conversation with MLSsoccer.com this week.
“It takes two minutes with Arthur to realize that’s not the case. … [The Falcons] won the [NFC] championship game and two days later on the first morning of [United’s preseason] in Florida, Arthur came to that first [training] session, because to him it’s equally as important that Atlanta United is a success.’
As anyone who’s been following the startlingly ambitious project that became Atlanta United can attest, Blank has thrown the full weight of his – and the Falcons’ – organizational might behind the MLS newcomers on a level matched by few expansion sides.
Similar to the structure created by Kraft, a good friend of Blank’s, Atlanta United and the Falcons share a parent organization that handles areas like administration, human resources, legal counsel, finance, sponsorships and events management. When Mercedes-Benz Stadium makes its debut in late July, the two teams will share a glittering $1.5 billion venue that has been tailored for both sports to an unprecedented extent.
In terms of team facilities, the Falcons will occupy the north side of the stadium, while United will reside in the south side. The lower sections of seating are retractable, allowing for a full FIFA regulation-size soccer pitch for MLS play. The acoustics are designed to hold a soccer crowd’s noise and during United matches, the upper decks will be cordoned off with curtains similar to those used at Vancouver’s BC Place.
Atlanta’s corporate sales have been brisk, fueled by MLS's connection to a different sort of fanbase than the NFL's.
“On our corporate partnerships for Mercedes-Benz Stadium, you get rights to both Atlanta United and the Atlanta Falcons as well as the stadium,” said Eales. “That was really eye-opening for everybody involved in the process: How beneficial that was for selling partnerships. With the NFL, you get the 800-pound gorilla, they are the big TV rating in North America. But with soccer and MLS, you get the international element, you get the growth proposition, you have the millennial audience and the Hispanic audience, which is much different from the NFL.”
The Falcons also opened up their full organizational heft to Eales and United technical director Carlos Bocanegra as they built United from the ground up. The duo spent plenty of time at the NFL team’s state-of-the-art training facility in Flowery Branch, Georgia, as they hatched the plans for their team’s own custom homebase in Marietta, which opens in April.
Falcons Director of Sports Medicine and Performance Marty Lauzon and Athletic Performance Manager AJ Neibel gave Bocanegra an inside look at their use of GPS, nutrition and hydration technologies. He also took some useful scouting practices from the NFL side, including player positional profiles that have been adapted for use in talent identification by Atlanta United’s youth academy. Meanwhile Eales (pictured below, at left) learned tactics for use in the MLS SuperDraft, a concept with little comparison in his Premier League past.
“They’re different sports, but what I was really interested in was sort of the game-theory element of it, the fact that it’s always a moving target,” said Eales. “You’ve got your players that you’re thinking of drafting, how do you react when players come off the board? So the Falcons’ [head coach] Dan Quinn and [general manager] Thomas Dimitroff were really good about letting me sit in their draft room for the last few drafts.”
Atlanta and New England have also learned what doesn’t translate so well from football to soccer. Both have surprisingly little overlap between their NFL and MLS season-ticket bases, and have hired ample staff in soccer-specific areas – especially when it comes to fan relations.
“An Atlanta United fan is totally different from an Atlanta Falcons fan,” said Eales, noting that his organization has already hired more than 50 dedicated United employees. “Anyone that is customer-facing and supporter-facing is Atlanta United-specific.”
Matters of synergy aside, both the Revs and Atlanta United find common cause with their football counterparts simply by being members of the same community.
Knighton is one of several Revs who’ve developed friendships with their Pats counterparts. Nearly a decade ago he and his wife attended a community event with Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski – a former soccer player who played with longtime MLS player Justin Mapp in his youth – and his spouse. The two families have stayed close over the years, even when Knighton spent a few seasons with Philadelphia, Vancouver and the Carolina Railhawks from 2010 to 2013, and they often get their young children together for outings.
On Sunday, Knighton and his teammates, who are in Casa Grande, Arizona, for preseason training camp, have a morning practice but have been given the afternoon off to watch the big game. Atlanta’s players will gather for a watch party of their own at their preseason camp in Bradenton, Florida. Both teams see their NFL teams’ successes as a rising tide that lifts all boats, as evidenced by the proliferation of their postseason mottos like #RiseUp, #DoYourJob and #OneMore on the social-media feeds of Revs and ATL UTD players and staff.
“It’s pretty incredible, this has been my seventh year in New England and I feel like they’re in the Super Bowl every year that I’ve been here,” said Knighton. “We’re right there in support of them, like they are with us when we go on our [playoff] runs. It’s a family and we try and push each other on here and there.
“It’s a mutual respect between the two of us. We expect to win and we expect championships, whether they’re in the Super Bowl or we’re in the MLS Cup, we’ve got their back and they’ve got our back. That’s something that the Krafts hold true to their hearts and it shows for both of their teams.”