Atlanta’s soccer shocker? Ridiculous success with fans

9:43 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017 Business

A strange virus is running rampant through metro Atlanta, with the potential to shake things in ways we hadn’t expected.

We’ve seen symptoms: red, black and gold flags billowing all over town.

A throng of the infected walked right by John Wilson, a reasonable football guy, as he stood outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium on a recent weekday evening.

“I didn’t know this many people came,” he told me, “not to a soccer game.”

Atlanta United, the Major League Soccer pro team, has done something wholly unexpected in its inaugural season: succeeded on a massive scale.

In its first year, with one home and one away game remaining before the playoffs, United is on track to break attendance records for the 22-year-old MLS.

United has averaged 46,721 people per game, according to the league, which has 21 other teams. United outdraws every team in Major League Baseball, the NBA and NHL.

Those other sports put on more games. But even United’s combined 747,530 home attendance tops those for more than half the NBA and NHL teams as well as every NFL team, which, to be fair, play less than half as many home games.

This, of course, is madness.

Atlanta is a football town, not a futbol town.

I kept telling this to people at a recent Atlanta United game. They didn’t listen.

Lawrenceville resident Jim Kalina wasn’t a soccer fan until buddies described how great the game atmosphere was, from exciting players to energized, welcoming fans. Now what is he?

“All in,” he said, bedecked in a United shirt, hat and scarf.

Scarf? I got the sense that many local soccer fans are learning as they go, adopting varying soccer customs that are entrenched pretty much everywhere outside the United States.

David Bell, a banker from Midtown who usually watches football or baseball, said he expected “nonchalant” soccer play when he attended his first pro soccer game. Instead, he got constant intensity and high-fiving strangers.

“It was a blast,” Bell said. “I’d pay good money to watch.”

Most people I spoke with at the game weren’t new converts. They or close family members had grown up playing soccer. Several told me they had been waiting for the arrival of big-time soccer for most of their lives.

“It just seems like it was kind of time for it,” Aimee Bouzigard said.

Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Atlanta United fans cheer before an MLS soccer match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

So why, up until now, has it been hard to get people to buy in to soccer?

Boris Jerkunica tried. A tech entrepreneur, he became majority owner of the Atlanta Silverbacks, then a semi-pro soccer team. He figured he had a built in audience. Lots of locals grew up playing soccer. And the Silverbacks played in a 5,000-seat stadium in the same complex with rec soccer squads.

Few of them bothered to buy Silverbacks season tickets, Jerkunica told me. “It was bad.”

“They just wanted a higher-level team and there is nothing that could be done about it from my end.”

He couldn’t afford to do what Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank has done. The Home Depot co-founder has deep pockets and space in the new, publicly subsidized Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“Yes, of course, having a billionaire and a $1.5-billion stadium helped, but that’s not enough,” Jerkunica said. There were lots of other crucial marketing and organizational steps. “They did all of it, and they did it well.”

Darren Eales, Atlanta United’s president, told me Blank spent more heavily than most clubs to jazz up the local fan base early on. That included hiring some staffers two and half years ahead of time and engaging in heavy guerrilla marketing efforts.

“Arthur, he is a man whose history was startups,” Eales said. The message was clear: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

They sought out avid fans who would become Atlanta United evangelists. Eales showed up at soccer bars and community gatherings looking for true believers. “It did feel like every day I was with a beer in my hand with supporters.”

They got 4,000 people to attend an unveiling of the team uniform, Eales said. They gave away lots of team scarves and flags. They hired a top coach, but steered away from aging brand-name players. Instead they sought out young, aggressive players who would keep fans standing. Blank promised fans they’d see a competitive team from the start.

All of this sounds smart, though not surprising. Maybe their execution was exceptional.

And maybe locals are just ready for a new thrill. (Kind of like how people are increasingly interested in trying funky new foods.)

Atlanta United. (Eric Rossitch / Atlanta United)

Eales likes to point out that Atlanta is made up of lots of people from other places. Plenty of them came here without giving up allegiances to NFL or NBA or MLB teams back in their home towns.

But with pro soccer, Atlanta United didn’t have to navigate around split loyalties. It’s all new, 100-percent gluten-free Atlanta.

The team already says it has more than 36,000 season ticket holders and is on track to exceed that next year.

Soccer overall has been building gradually across the nation.

“There is still a long way to go for where people want the sport to be,” said Sunil Gulati, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

The to-do list, he said, includes growing TV ratings, improving competitiveness with the best teams in the world and making soccer “part of the fabric of American society.”

Winning over even more converts in Georgia would be nice, too.

Several fans I spoke with said the crowds at Atlanta United games seem particularly inclusive, pulling in more young people and fans who were born in other countries.

“Atlanta needs this type of stuff,” Justin Williams, a chef in Atlanta, told me. “It’s something that brings people together.”

That touchy feely stuff ought to be good for business, too.

“It puts Atlanta on the map with a worldwide beloved sport,” Metro Atlanta Chamber president Hala Moddelmog told me. “It shows our diversity at work. It paints a new and fresh picture of Atlanta.”

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