My earliest memory of soccer, other than watching the guy with one name (Pele) score a goal on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” every week, was covering the Los Angeles Aztecs of the NASL in the early 1980s.
The Aztecs played in the 104,000-seat Rose Bowl. But they generally drew only 3,000 fans per game, except for the one on the Fourth of July, when 70,000 suddenly poured in with about 10 minutes left in the game, primarily for the postgame fireworks show. It was sort of like that scene in “This Is Spinal Tap,” when the struggling band shows up for a gig at an amusement park, only to discover they are on the undercard to a puppet show. (“We have a bigger dressing room than the puppets, so that’s refreshing.”)
There’s a point to all this, honest: I grew up predisposed to believing professional soccer will always fail in the U.S. Because, well, it always has. Theories that all of those kids playing youth soccer would drag their parents to games and then grow into season ticket-holders themselves were never realized, making it clear the kids were only there for the halftime juice boxes and postgame pizza. (The NASL never latched onto this marketing idea. It folded after 17 seasons.)
Back to soccer: It actually might work this time. Actually, it’s already working. The MLS had modest beginnings with 10 teams in 1996, lost millions of dollars for years and seemingly was circling that same drain that sucked down the blur of men’s/women’s indoor/outdoor soccer leagues that preceded it. Soon, the league stopped wobbling. Teams drew fans, tapping into the millennial market. Improved TV deals followed with ESPN, Fox and Univision.
The MLS now has 22 teams with an average franchise value of $185 million. Take that, puppet show.
I bring this up now because, as you might be aware, Atlanta has a team. Falcons owner Arthur Blank paid $70 million for an expansion franchise, $60 million to build a training facility and invested several millions more to start a multi-tiered player developmental system (the academy includes an under-12 division). He hired a high-profile executive (team president Darren Eales from Tottenham Hotspur in England) and a high-profile manager: Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who coached Paraguay, FC Barcelona and the Argentina national team.
“In the early days, I was selling sunshine a little,” Eales said. “The stadium hadn’t been built. The training ground hadn’t been built. The team wasn’t in existence. When you’re trying to sign players, the question you’re always going to get from them is, ‘Who’s going to be the coach?’ All I could say was — and I’ll sound a little bit like Trump — ‘It’s going to be a really good coach! The best coach! Terrific!’’’
Eales gave an extensive interview on his background, Atlanta United and soccer’s prospects in Atlanta. Much of the interview can be heard on the “We Never Played The Game” podcast, which can be downloaded on iTunes.
Atlanta United hasn’t played a game yet but it’s already an early success story. It has sold more than 30,000 season tickets (second in the MLS to Seattle) and 50,000 tickets for the first game. There are multiple fan clubs. If it does a good job building the team and isn’t taken over by former Atlanta Spirit partners, there’s a good chance it won’t move to Winnipeg one day.
But this is where we caution: It’s Atlanta. The fickle reputation of the city’s sports fans is well documented. Eales understands this. He said it was the only negative he came across when Blank was trying to convince him to take the job. He also admits, “I had that image of the South that it would be a little backwards.”
But Blank convinced him he was committed to making the soccer club a success. He was impressed by Atlanta during his quasi-recruiting visit in 2014. (Amusing side note: He went out of his way to avoid the HBO cameras in Flowery Branch for “Hard Knocks” because Tottenham didn’t know he was here.)
Also, Eales’ wife was American, she was pregnant with twins and he was at that point in his career when he wanted to try something unique: building a team from the ground up.
“It was one of those moments where you say, ‘If you don’t do this now, you’ll never do this,’” he said.
Atlanta United’s market research showed its initial core audience will be millennials. It even surveyed Falcons’ fans and potential soccer fans and asked questions like whether they had beer preferences.
Falcons fans didn’t care.
Soccer fans: “82 percent wanted craft beer,” he said.
Craft beer they will get.
But beer and cool new unis aside, the team eventually must win. The Thrashers sold out several games in their first two seasons but interest waned as losses mounted.
Eales hopes the atmosphere at games becomes college-like. “College is what soccer is like in the rest of the world,” he said. But that status is not easily achieved.
Eales was an accomplished soccer player himself but not good enough to play in England’s celebrated Premier League. So when he was approached in his teens by a college scout, he said yes to a scholarship offer. The school? West Virginia.
“Looking back, it was almost like a gap year,” he said. “It was one of those surreal experiences in my life. It was fun, it was different but I didn’t want to be there more than a year.”
He said he wanted to go to school where he could get a “decent degree.” (Shots fired.)
Several Ivy League schools pursued him and Eales made that rarely seen transition from Morgantown to Brown, where he was named All-American and Ivy League player of the year. He stayed in the U.S., played for a few minor league teams, returned to England, earned his law degree at Cambridge and figured to stay in England forever.
Then a strange thing happened. Soccer in the U.S. became an attraction. Maybe this time it will stick.
Subscribe to the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast with the AJC’s Jeff Schultz and WSB’s Zach Klein on iTunes.