For soccer’s newest hotbed, look due south

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For soccer’s newest hotbed, look due south
Aug 3, 2018

By George Gerbo

Picture 70,000 screaming fans, packed into a shining jewel of a football stadium, watching the world’s game.

Is this St. Petersburg, Russia? Sochi? Nizhny Novgorod?

Nope. This year’s FIFA World Cup host cities don’t have anything on Georgia. (The state, not the country.)

Atlanta – yes, Atlanta – is staking a claim to be America’s professional soccer capital. Now in its second season, Atlanta United FC is shattering old notions of what Major League Soccer’s limits are in the United States and in the South.

“I’ve been covering MLS for a long time now, and seeing new markets like Atlanta have success gives me great joy,” said veteran MLS writer Drew Epperley, who is based in Dallas. “Atlanta, in particular, is a fun case to watch evolve into something special.”

Atlanta United unveiled this mural in Decatur, Ga, in 2017, as part of its branding efforts. The new team joined MLS in 2017 and already has made a splash. (Photo: Delta)

United had drawn more than 620,000 fans to Mercedes-Benz Stadium—the gleaming new $1.5 billion downtown Atlanta stadium they share with the National Football League’s Falcons—through 12 matches this season, according to Soccer Stadium Digest. That’s the best attendance among the 23 MLS teams—an average attendance of more 50,000 fans per match, 10,000 more than second-place Seattle.

“The team—particularly the front office and executive-level leaders—has cultivated an energy within the city where fans feel incredibly proud of this team,” said Joe Patrick, managing editor for SB Nation’s Atlanta United site, Dirty South Soccer.

Atlanta’s June 30 match against Orlando City drew 71,932, the largest soccer crowd in the world that day, besting two FIFA World Cup contests in Russia, and the third-biggest single-game crowd in MLS history.

What are the top two largest single-game crowds in MLS history? Atlanta’s home game against Seattle on July 15 (72,243), followed by the team’s home opener this season against D.C. United, of course (72,035). In fact, the top five biggest single-game crowds in league history all belong to Atlanta.

The team also set the highest attendance mark for an MLS All-Star Game, packing a crowd of 72,317 into Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the Aug. 1 match between the MLS All-Stars and Italian powerhouse Juventus.

Atlanta United’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium opened in August 2017, and it has already played host to the five most highly-attended games in MLS history.

“The amount of bumper stickers, flags, and scarves you see around town really illustrates the fact that people want to show off their fandom,” Patrick said. “That’s cool, but the fact that they are doing so for a soccer team makes it even more amazing.”

The “Five Stripes” have given their boisterous crowds plenty to cheer about in just a short time. In 2017, Atlanta became only the third expansion club to qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs in their inaugural season, eventually falling to Columbus in the knockout round. Through 23 matches so far this season, they lead the Eastern Conference and all of MLS with 14 wins and 47 points.

“The ownership group has done an excellent job of being willing to spend big money on exciting young players in Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron,” Epperley said. “By not being afraid to just spend to the ‘MLS salary cap’ and push the limits of what you can do in MLS in terms of spending, Atlanta is showing their fans that they will do whatever it takes to win.”

The success of this team and this sport in Atlanta isn’t something that happened overnight. Or as Patrick puts it, it’s not that Atlantans “just swallowed the magic pill and suddenly loved soccer.” The club has been strategically marketed since the franchise was granted in 2014, and Atlanta has placed a high emphasis on creating a home atmosphere unlike any in MLS.

“What has truly driven interest is the fan experience at games,” Patrick said, noting the style of play, player quality, concession prices, and the digital team at Mercedes-Benz Stadium all contribute to United FC matches being Atlanta’s hottest ticket.

“In this day and age of HDTVs and quality in-home entertainment, that stadium experience is dying quickly across almost every sport, soccer included,” Patrick said. “But in Atlanta being at an Atlanta United game is a destination.”

The biggest catalyst spearheading Atlanta United’s vision and direction is someone who has been involved in football management for nearly two decades. Just not this kind of football.

“[My family and friends in Atlanta] to some degree said it would work because of the location of the stadium, the diverse landscape of the downtown scene in Atlanta, and because they have an owner that the local sports fans respect and want to get behind in Arthur Blank.” Epperley said.

The co-founder of The Home Depot, owner of the Falcons since 2002, and a philanthropist with deep ties to the region, Blank had a soccer epiphany in the last decade and became enamored with the game.

“He will be the first to tell you that, at some point, he fell head-over-heels for soccer,” Patrick said. “I don’t know if it was the Landon Donovan goal vs. Algeria [that won Group C for the U.S. during the 2010 World Cup] or what turned him, but he became obsessed with the sport.”

Blank was a “visionary” in spearheading Atlanta’s entry into MLS, Patrick said. With a lower financial barrier of entry than other North American professional sports leagues, Patrick thinks Blank wanted to use his acumen to help advance the sport in America.

“He knew he could start an organization that was not only self-sustaining, but spreads his love of the game to the masses. In that respect, I believe he almost sees Atlanta United a philanthropic venture,” Patrick said.

It was simple enough for Blank to host United alongside his Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. What takes more commitment is to build a foundation for success – investing in player development, constructing a first-class training facility, and cultivating a strong academy system – all of which Blank has done to position United for sustained growth.

“The ownership group from day one has been hitting it out of the park,” Epperley said, “with player signings, front office additions, building a state-of-the-art training facility (which is an underrated asset in my mind these days in MLS), to gathering general interest in their fan base across the Southeast.”

“Atlanta United operates, from the first team to the U-14s, very much like a European club,” Patrick added. “There is a clear structure and pipeline to develop professional players from the area.”

Blank’s attention to detail is reflected in how United is run. Patrick notes the quality of the people, “from team communications personnel, to the security receptionist at the training ground, to the groundsmen out mowing the fields,” and how they are working together for a common purpose.

“Everyone around Atlanta United seems happy and passionate about what they do,” Patrick said. “I assume most of them recognize the quality of the organization for which they work, but I think there must be a high standard of hiring that helps identify the best people for roles in the organization.”

Blank and Atlanta United have now authored a blueprint that might not be able to be exactly replicated, but MLS certainly would like to see some similar level of success in other future markets as the league continues to expand in North America. Is it possible any of the next generation of MLS cities can expect the same fanfare and achievement to accompany their arrivals in the league?

“Cincinnati is one of them right now that could do just that,” Epperley said of the United Soccer League’s FC Cincinnati who will make the jump from the USL to MLS next season. “They have a great plan in place for a new downtown stadium, an ownership group that is going to be willing to spend money on exciting players, and an already established core group of fans that will show up in droves to support their team.

Epperley also said Nashville’s yet-to-be-named franchise, set to join the league in 2020, has laid groundwork similar to Atlanta’s. “They are already making front office moves ahead of time to ensure they are set up for success.

Patrick suggests that future squads shouldn’t necessarily try to mimic Atlanta’s brand strategy but instead emulate the foundation and formula behind the club to create a lasting soccer relationship and impact in their communities.

“I think one of the toughest tasks for any expansion organization is to analyze the market and determine how they can build the optimal brand that will carry the club for generations,” Patrick said. “If there’s something for these clubs to replicate, it’s not the output of what Atlanta United has created, but rather the structure and the strategy that allowed it to create something so impressive.”

Atlanta is on the list of 23 candidate cities to host matches in 2026 as part of the recently successful bid by the U.S., Canada and Mexico to bring the World Cup to North America, a list that will eventually be narrowed to 16. Even though the tournament is eight years away, with Atlanta’s soccer structure and strategy in place and a wildly successful professional debut, it’s a safe bet to pencil in the city as a yes to welcome the world to how the South does soccer.

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