If there’s any lesson that MLS can write down in permanent marker, it’s that the best expansion cities are those who have just lost a team in another major professional sports league to relocation. The dataset isn’t large, but the evidence is significant. In 2009, there was Seattle, which rallied around the Sounders after losing the NBA’s Sonics to Oklahoma City. Then, in 2017, there was Atlanta United.
Wait, Atlanta lost a team?
Well, in a fashion. 2017 was the inaugural season of Atlanta United, and also the inaugural season of the Atlanta Braves’ new baseball stadium out in suburban Cobb County. The Braves had previously played in downtown for fifty years, but their departure—conspicuously in the direction of Atlanta’s wealthy, white suburbs—was one of many factors which set the table nicely for soccer in the South. At the same time that one major league team was sending a clear message that it only intended to appeal to certain types of fans, Atlanta United came along with a name and a message that said the exact opposite.
It was certainly effective. The numbers are jaw dropping. Between their temporary home at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium and their permanent digs at Mercedes Benz Stadium, Atlanta averaged 48,200 fans per game last season, the best attendance in the league. In their first match of this season, they drew a capacity crowd of 72,035, breaking the league record for a single game showing. It’s no secret that the league’s television strategy is heavy on Atlanta games, and with spectacles like the stadium-wide A-T-L boom boom clap variant, it’s easy to see why.
As Alexi Lalas said…
"Sorry Seattle, you have lost the crown. It's all about Atlanta United right now."
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) March 16, 2018
What’s been most impressive to me about Atlanta United off the field, however, has not been the multitudes in the stands, but the effective and almost effortless way in which they have grown a clear, discernible club identity in little to no time. Last week, I lauded the New York Red Bulls for the way they have structured their club, not just for success today, but for success in perpetuity. Atlanta United have achieved what seems to me to be a similar degree of success off the field, not just drawing fans today, but setting down the kind of community roots that ensure long term support.
If you ask Atlanta United fans about their team’s immediate success, the major theme is that Atlanta is a city of transplants. Metropolitan Atlanta has grown by nearly 30% decade over decade, and its population has increased by over two million people just since its global coming out party at the 1996 Olympics. But these newcomers have largely brought with them their old sports loyalties. Atlanta’s fame as a ‘bad sports town’ has come from the relative lack of support for its existing teams and also from the unusually large support many visiting teams get.
But MLS is a relatively new league and Atlanta United is a brand-new team. For many Atlantans, it was the first MLS club they had campaigned for their support. It was also a chance to support something truly native to their adopted hometown, without sacrificing their ties to the place where they grew up. Despite derision from many folks (including me), Atlanta United have actually lived up to their name.
But to succeed along these lines, Atlanta United had to actually do a good job of representing the city, and building something that did feel uniquely local. This is a difficult task to accomplish for giant corporate sports franchises!
Consider the path of New York City FC, another recent high-profile entry into the league. That club still draws decently well, but attendance is down and the buzz seems to have gone flat, despite the team being better than ever. Playing in Yankee Stadium, (whose clueless security staff still suppress harmless fan enthusiasm during matches) is dragging the team down, but the club has also had some difficulties in passing themselves off as authentic New Yorkers. Initially, the foreign ownership of City Football Group/Abu Dhabi United Group played a heavy hand at the team’s launch, meddling with the transfer of Frank Lampard, calling its fans the ‘Cityzens,’ and outfitting the team in knockoff Manchester City jerseys for their first year. While the club has since corrected the problem with a smart switch from white shorts to dark blue and making clever nods at the club’s informal nickname of ‘the pigeons,’ initial impressions stuck, and New York City has always felt a bit derivative.
Atlanta has made none of these mistakes. Their crest and inaugural jerseys were not great works of art, but they provided a foundation for fans to build upon. The club was extremely quick to recognize and accept the ‘Five Stripes’ nickname. Arguably most clubs in MLS still do not have a visual identity that can automatically be associated with them, and a few clubs like FC Dallas and DC United have—inexplicably—actively resisted building upon an identity that could’ve been uniquely theirs. All of the great clubs of the world have an iconic ‘look,’ and Atlanta United achieved one on their first try.
The stadium atmosphere also seems largely successful. The fans and the club have embraced Atlanta’s rich cultural output, especially in hip-hop, and the city’s history as a railroad hub. Atlanta’s A-T-L cheer is probably the league’s best to watch on television, and their rendition of Archie Eversole’s ‘We Ready’ is not to be missed. The worst part of the club’s tradition building is the most corporate—the goofy and contrived spectacle of a local celebrity hammering a railroad spike before the game. Thanks to a mostly hands-off approach that let their fans take the lead in building a club culture, (local ownership also helps here) Atlanta have found their way towards convincing ‘authenticity’ and in just over a year of actual games!
Minnesota United had a head start on their expansion partners, thanks to being heirs to a twenty-three year tradition of professional soccer in the lower division. The club’s supporters groups were already organized, and traditions from Wonderwall to scarf waving on corners were already well established. The Loon nickname was already universal. The club’s crest actually is a great work of art. Still, there’s work to be done. The club improved their primary kits for this current season, moving to the dark-grey-on-grey look that is globally distinctive. But until the club returns to the wing motif, or some call-back towards it, they will not have a distinctive pattern for their kits. Their away kits are also awful (Atlanta has this same problem) and a move back to the light blue of their NASL days would be helpful.
When the club moves into their permanent home in Midway, there will be another period of evolution. It’s hard to set down roots when you’re moving from place to place, and Minnesota United’s culture has been a bit stunted by the detour to TCF Bank Stadium. But Midway will offer a chance to restore some traditions (like the analog scoreboard) and create new ones. Seeing that evolution in Minnesota, just as in Atlanta, with clubs committed to growing something more than just a team on the field, will be gratifying in the coming years.
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