ATLANTA (AP) — Arthur Blank stood before approximately 4,000 fans to celebrate the evolving identity of their new team.
Yes, Atlanta, your expansion Major League Soccer franchise, which debuts in March 2017, has been named Atlanta United FC. Your colors are black, red and gold. And your new stadium is under construction.
Nearly everyone gathered at an outdoor west side nightclub already knew the team's name after Sports Illustrated reported it two weeks ago.
The fans, many of whom cheered "Un-cle Ar-thur" as team owner Blank approached the podium, were equally enthusiastic when MLS commissioner Don Garber, team president Darren Eales and technical director Carlos Bocanegra took turns speaking.
"We're off to a great start," Blank said. "We've got north of 21,000 in our founders club, and the commissioner told me that has never been done in the history of the MLS. We're excited."
And the team is already open for business to sell tickets two years before playing its first game at a $1.4 billion stadium rising next door to the Georgia Dome.
Blank, the Home Depot co-founder, led the push to build the new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons, the NFL franchise he's owned since February 2002.
He first explored bringing an MLS team to Atlanta 10 years ago. With the new stadium, Blank hopes to exceed the average MLS game crowd of 20,000.
"We knew that Atlanta — given its demographic changes, its growth, its significant Hispanic population and the millennial population downtown — would support soccer if we had the right facility and brought in the right leadership," Blank told The Associated Press "We have a lot we have to do. Now we have to convert these fans into season-ticket holders."
Atlanta United can't begin signing players until next summer and even then he doesn't expect to have more than five before the MLS expansion draft in December 2016.
Bocanegra, with no players to call his own, spends nearly all of his time scouting.
"We're starting with zero players and we have to put a squad of 28 players," Bocanegra told The AP. "First time we can train together is mid-January and we have to be playing a game by early March. It's not a long time. We don't have that core group. That's going to be a real challenge."
Blank echoed many of the same themes he's used over the years when addressing Falcons fans.
He spoke of having a winning product and a rewarding game-day experience.
"We have a lot of humility," Blank said. "We have our head down, working hard and putting our shoulder to the wheel. With this kind of leadership we have with Darren, Carlos and (vice president of business operations) Ann (Rodriguez), we'll a franchise the MLS can be proud of for years to come."