Two Major League Soccer expansion clubs first took the field in March 2017, both bearing the moniker “United”. One in Minneapolis, the other, in Atlanta— a city in that lower-third of the American map which, conventional wisdom holds, stands in stark opposition to the globalist concerns of either American coast, and could therefore never deign to care about a sport as preposterously effete as soccer, where flopping is rewarded.
Five months later, Atlanta United boast the highest average home attendance in Major League Soccer history (46,318 fans per game, more than any other MLS, NBA, NHL or MLB franchise in the country) and are in contention for the playoffs, while Minneapolis United play to smaller than league-average crowds.
So what gives?
Changing a culture
Until recently, the United States — particularly the southernmost ones away from the soccer hipsters of Brooklyn and Portland — have not been known as a haven of futbol culture. The same held true for Atlanta, where even a “North American” sport like hockey was unable to garner sufficient audience to survive (the NHL’s Thrashers left the city in 2011). And yet, Atlanta United played their first home game to 55,297 fans in March — the best-attended match of MLS opening weekend by a factor of two and the fourth-largest soccer crowd in the world that week.
One explanation for the shift towards soccer in southern cities such as Atlanta may lie in the nature of the sport itself. In The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, authors Chris Anderson and David Sally differentiate between two kinds of social ecosystems — “weak-link” and “strong-link”. Strong-link sports have traditionally been popular in the individualist culture of the United States, while weak-link sports dominate countries throughout the world. In a strong-link sport, the greatest impact is typically made by Atlas-like individuals, who take the world onto their shoulders to win games (LeBron James and Tom Brady come to mind). Weak-link sports are more cooperative. A soccer team may require 10 perfect passes to score, meaning that a single weak link in the chain can derail the entire enterprise. Likewise, a single strong player is usually precluded from inflicting any outsized dominance on the competition.
Could it be that this disparity in value systems helps explain why soccer is primarily catching on in America’s more progressive cities, such as Atlanta? Additionally, Anderson links soccer’s recent surge in popularity to the United States’ late 20th-century immigration boom (which helped create the multicultural atmosphere of cities like Atlanta), noting that, “the stock of soccer knowledgeable people in American communities has increased, especially in urban areas.”
Atlanta United president Darren Eales, who is British, agrees. “I look back 23 years ago when I was playing in America, we were lucky to get a thousand people a game and the biggest cheer was when the goalkeeper punted the ball high into the air. That was the level of soccer sophistication. Now, we’ve got a country that knows the game.”
In addition to an increasing domestic appreciation of soccer’s nuances, Anderson cites the tendency of upwardly-mobile progressives to self-identify with the sport’s ‘exotic’ global culture as a factor in fan growth. “[America] urban centers have become re-energized in important ways,” he observes. “You have young professionals and hipsters making downtown their home. Many of them seem to enjoy identifying themselves in opposition to the ‘typical’ American sports fan, and soccer offers that opportunity.”
For their part, the millennial fans flocking to the game in Atlanta are as quick as Princeton sociologists to cite soccer’s global qualities as an attraction. Charlton Cunningham, a 29 year-old resident of Atlanta’s west-midtown district who had “little interest” in MLS before 2017, says he appreciates the fact that, “one person can’t call his own number and make a play happen [in soccer]. It truly takes a team effort to score.”
Cunningham also notes the unique composition of the crowd. “[Atlanta United] bring out the diversity this city is known for, but rarely sees at other sporting events,” he says. “You hear different languages being spoken, so you feel that international sense of the game. It’s amazing.” Chris Green, an Atlanta native and life-long soccer player, agrees. “My seat neighbors are Latino, African, and European in addition to the traditional, homegrown American. Many of my fellow fans come from cultures where soccer is their first sport, so I think the strength of the fanbase will persist.”
But while these changing perceptions towards soccer are important to Atlanta United they don’t entirely explain the team’s success (Houston, for example, is a similarly diverse place but the city’s MLS team struggles to pull in large crowds).
How to build an overnight success
Arthur Blank, Atlanta United’s owner, recognized the potential of bringing soccer to America’s largest market without a team. He began publicly pursuing the prospect of MLS expansion in 2007, renewing his commitment to getting the deal done in the aftermath of the Thrashers’ departure. It was the impending (and controversial) construction of the Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium with tax-exempt bonds that cemented the team’s arrival, smoothing over lingering MLS worries regarding Atlanta’s commitment to hosting a team.
The next step was to find the fans (the Mercedes Benz Stadium will seat 42,500 fans for United games when they move to their new home in September). Eales joked that his first year in Atlanta was essentially one long “pub crawl,” meeting with fans at bars across the city. The community investment paid off. Nearly 22,000 season seats were pre-sold, a staggering number that made Atlanta the sixth-best attended MLS team before a game had been played, and would eventually climb to a league-leading 35,000+ season ticket holders.
In addition to their PR drive, Atlanta United made sure they had a team worth watching. Perhaps the biggest prize came at the top: they recruited Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, the most distinguished coach ever to arrive in MLS. Martino boasts an extensive playing resume in his native Argentina and across Europe, as well as coaching the likes of Barcelona and Argentina.
Blank’s administrative group has attracted other top talent, most notably Eales, who has shown a willingness to leverage his impressive global Rolodex and sink serious money into young players in an attempt to field a competitive team from day one. As a result, Martino has three MLS all-stars (Greg Garza, Miguel Almiron, and Michael Parkhurst) at his disposal to implement his aggressive style of play, leveraging speed to counter a lack of defensive polish.
Eales is quick to point out the departure this approach to player acquisition represents from the MLS tendency to tie up cap space on aging superstars, who often come stateside for one final cash-in. “We were in a privileged position,” he explains. “The fans were already on board, so we didn’t need to go after any one name, a player at the end of his career in the Premier League … [we] could focus on attracting quality young players.”
Green credits some of his newfound fandom to this approach, arguing that the quality of play on display has changed his perceptions of a league historically haunted by a “bush league” reputation. “I have to admit, I was skeptical,” Green says. “But seeing this young, talented team contradicted my perception that MLS was a place for older players to sunset their careers.”
Martino’s high-intensity approach has not only maximized the impact of Atlanta’s impressive roster of attackers, but also proven a point of entry for Atlanta’s newfound fans, many of whom are making their first efforts to pay attention to a sport often characterized by Americans as “slow”. A decade and a half ago, for instance, essayist Chuck Klosterman called soccer, “a sport where announcers inexplicably celebrate the beauty of missed shots and the strategic glory of repetitive stalemates.” Though he was half-joking, his appraisal accurately represented the opinions of millions of Americans, at least if we’re to take the disparity between the number of children who played the sport and still watched it as adults as an indicator.
Eales, fans and academics describe Atlanta’s emerging fan-base as “young,” “diverse,” and “progressive,” but does this mean that the soccer wave pundits have promised for years is finally cresting? Will Atlanta United’s current attendance boom eventually be remembered as the beginnings of a real, sustainable soccer culture in the American south-east, or merely the anomalous early success expansion franchises sometimes see? According to Anderson, this depends on continued youth engagement, the stability of other professional sports, and America’s ability to eventually produce a soccer superstar.
Ultimately, speaking either to Atlanta fans or team representatives, it’s hard not to be struck with the impression that something is happening in the city. Thus far in the club’s short history, Green points out, fans have had to brave “Georgia summer heat,” uncomfortable seats, and interminably long lines for the team’s temporary home the “no-frills Bobby Dodd [college stadium] experience”— conditions that would never be accepted at other major sporting events.
So, why are they accepted at a soccer match? Because the people of Atlanta simply love the game of soccer? In some cases, yes. In others, fans freely admit an inability to describe the game’s rules. And so it seems some of the excitement is probably attributable to the sport of soccer itself. And some is due to this particular franchise’s keen ability to function as a social mirror of 21st century Atlanta.
Staring at its own reflection, the city seems to like what it sees.