Author John Parker is the AO Atlanta Co-President and founding member.
He’s also the adidas ITP Director of Youth Development and Chief Storyteller. He knows his stuff.
I had always fantasized that the news of Atlanta MLS would arrive with much greater personal fanfare and the jovial mug shot to prove it. Yet, wrapped in a blanket of post-concussive syndrome, I experienced a moment I had fantasized about for a decade plus from a surprising distance. There was the fog that has been ever present the past few weeks casting concern upon my lucidity…and then there was this other question on my tongue, “how much confirmation bias have I heaped upon Atlanta MLS?”
I’m admittedly something of a rarity in Atlanta.
I live in the city of my birth (right down the new streetcar line that will go straight to the new Dome). I prefer to walk or take public transit. The only bar in Atlanta with the MLS Direct Kick package is one block from my house (due to my constant nagging) and I eschewed more romantic pursuits to work in a sport where I never excelled. I watched thirteen hours of MLS this weekend and the rest of the time I spent espousing the cultural growth of the area around downtown Atlanta to an old friend…I should be perfectly positioned to argue the MLS merits of my beloved hometown.
Yet this long-winded deposition begs the point, am I in too deep in to be trusted?
As such I felt the need to write this article to not only make the argument in support of MLS in Atlanta, but also to illuminate my own biases to myself. With a three-year purgatory soon upon us, there will be few topics on my tongue besides the impending team. Those who’ve seen MLS succeed and/or fail in their local towns will glean points that support their argument for or against Atlanta (and I know it’s mostly against). Either way, for me my passion has been directed at “the greater good” of MLS and US Soccer. Now, finally, it can be crafted around my hometown.
A Modern Atlanta
The local narrative surrounding improvements around Atlanta were vastly undermined by two national stories in the past year. With the move of the Atlanta Braves to Cobb County, and the ice storm that stranded motorists throughout the metro area, Atlanta was thrust in to the national purview. As is typical for Atlanta, if the nation cares it’s because we’ve yet again reinforced the concern around unchecked suburban sprawl. It’s true that Atlanta is a city that spends much of its time in cars transporting to and from the northern suburbs. It’s also true that the demographics of the city become a good bit more homogenous as you drive north.
These are issues I jest about locally, and issues I choose to mitigate when I craft the story of Atlanta for myself. It’s also an issue that came to a head during the Braves move and one that will be fascinating come 2017. While nationally the focus rested upon the density of the sprawl and population north of the city, the focus within Atlanta was one of division. Rapid demographic and cultural changes brought investment and an influx of young professionals back in to the east and west sides of the city. It’s the “g” word in caps lock, and it has been happening at near New York speed. With the growth in the city came money and a larger political voice. This voice stands in stark contrast with that of the northern counties.
The Braves, a fixture in the east side of Atlanta and a cultural hallmark for many of the mid twenty to thirty something’s that now populate the area, elected for the easy money in the north over the growth potential in the city. This repudiated the momentum people like me believed was consistent in Atlanta’s evolution. However, the feeling of loss and insult that populated the daily topics of conversation was actually reinvigorating. It became clear Atlanta had formed a definitive identity, one that can and will eventually battle the national narrative of sprawl, sweet tea, and Waffle House. With easy access via Atlanta Rapid Transit (MARTA), the new Street Car or simply by foot, a successful grassroots campaign can form a core from the burgeoning identity of Atlanta.
An envelopment of Downtown Atlanta has come from the surrounding neighborhoods and inspired multiple massive developments besides the new stadium. With new investment in Downtown, a culture around the team and game day experience should follow. And with some craftily disseminated marketing campaigns, the desire to unify and represent a city oft maligned and undersold could create an unexpected surge of passion.
This is not to discount greater Atlanta as a whole. Atlanta MLS will and should try to build upon the massive Hispanic presence as well as the swath of youth soccer. MLS 3.0 will and must draw from these demographics. However, the national discussion on attendance of El Tri games and the omnipresence of youth soccer purposefully manipulates the argument to assume other opportunities aren’t more fruitful. The demographics for a downtown team that have shown success in the Pacific Northwest, Kansas City and elsewhere are here and growing. In 2017, they’ll be presented with a team to call their own as the Braves hit the trail for the suburbs. The tribal nature that epitomizes MLS supporter culture is one that I’ve often sought here in Atlanta and one I embrace with each opportunity.
I project myself on my neighbors in prescribing it for them as well. Whether this is a myopic belief or not will be an essential part of the equation for success.
A Sporting Quandary
A favorite case against Atlanta is the supposed fickle nature of its fans. Herein lies a larger question for Atlanta MLS where personal optimism faces a much more treacherous course. There is context for each professional team in Atlanta that allows for an educated argument that it is not the citizens’ fault. Yet our sprint to craft context does belie the truth to the national argument. To say Atlantans are fickle sports fans is to overlook that it is the capitol city of arguably the most passionate set of fans, those of southern college football. This will never change considering that the graduates of southern schools find the greatest upward mobility in Atlanta.
For many, college football is so large that it leaves little vacancy for other sports. I sympathize as I’ve had a similar reaction with soccer, having become something of a bandwagon fan for all other local sports considering I already occupy so much of my passion with a single pursuit.
However, while it is easy to roll my eyes at those who say Atlanta is not a sports town, it is much more difficult to argue against Atlanta not being a professional sports town. To sway the football diehards to take a Saturday in the fall off for soccer will be difficult. For this portion of the populace, I have questions I cannot answer. There are some traits to the city, however, that do console my attempts to craft my preferred narrative.
Most importantly, unlike the other local franchises they will not be competing with teams from other cities for Atlanta’s passion. What MLS lacks in generational continuity can be advantageous to expansion clubs in a young league, especially in a city with such a highly proportional transplant community.
There is a ground swell of a more contagious civic pride to expand from, and what I believe will be a downtown location in the top 20% in MLS. There are the demographics that convert to MLS fans and a void being opened by the Braves. These advantages should allow MLS breathing room in a claustrophobic sports city. The opportunities afforded being more about overcoming the sporting landscape may mean smoke bombs and sports radio won’t institutionalize this franchise. Successfully transforming Atlanta MLS in to a cultural landmark will require the proper organizational commitment Arthur Blank.
The Rich Man of Atlanta
I won’t harp on Arthur Blank’s business acumen, as I find little correlation between that and sporting success (plenty of intelligent men have found sports to be a great opportunity for business reasons alone). Rather, I’d focus on what Arthur Blank has meant to the Atlanta sporting landscape. As much as we (myself included) like to extol the importance of supporter culture, the quality of the organization for MLS is a necessary first. Portland’s brilliant marketing campaign, the organizational evolution in Kansas City, and the ambitious brilliance of Tim Leiweke were the conditions that build the foundation for strong supporter cultures to thrive in their respective cities. Here lies one of, if not the greatest of, Atlanta’s advantages. Some may remember the days of Ted Turner as owner of the Braves and Hawks.
In these days Atlanta was signing reigning Cy Young pitchers, packing the Omni for Hawks games, and finding unity in its sporting culture. Turner’s merger with Time Warner lead to a corporatization of the Atlanta sports teams and a loss of the façade that separated business from pride and passion. Left with an out of town corporate Braves ownership and a scrapheap collective for the Hawks and Thrashers rife with infighting, the city has instituted Arthur Blank as the 21st Century Atlantan Daddy Warbucks. Blank has been harkened upon to save each Atlanta franchise throughout his ownership.
While some do not appreciate his omnipresence within the team (he often stands on the sideline at the end of Falcons games), it cannot be denied that he is the only owner in the city who cares about his team and the city it represents, while capably executing upon his ambition. While there is no proof that he will show similar commitment to MLS, there simply isn’t a body of evidence to point either way. Yes, Home Depot has invested heavily in MLS and US Soccer, and the Blank Foundation has been involved with soccer non-profits as well.
However, these actions do not inspire me to erect barricades Peachtree Street, and they won’t for you either. We have to search for our context elsewhere. His investment in the city of Atlanta is the best body of proof we have for Blank’s commitment. I won’t bore with further details here, but it is at the least well built in to his public perception. The unfortunate nature of soccer in America is there simply isn’t a historical passion for the sport that permeates the ultra-wealthy. What we can plead to in the case of expansion is often the import placed in their public perception and their pride in the city they are investing in. With Arthur Blank it is easy to be optimistic that pleas to both will be heard.
What is Soccer in Atlanta?
While I’ve delved in to my optimism for the trajectory of the city and our most visible investor, this is unfortunately a question I cannot avoid here. I’ve avoided it so far due to my admitted confusion of what soccer means in most any diverse American town. There is a vast youth soccer scene in Atlanta, a large Hispanic presence, and a multicultural influence upon the evolving culture…these have not been the determining factors for MLS success yet.
There is a comparatively well-attended D2 team and a supporter group, Terminus Legion, already established. This bodes well, but…teams have succeeded even without this in place. What soccer means to your town is often very different than what American soccer means to your town. The difference rests at the confluence of dwindling apathy and a palpable void. It’s the reason American soccer is so damn interesting…because there is still so much mystery. As such, I find Atlanta to embody many of the traits of MLS. While I would say it is an average soccer town, there is a palpable void where MLS could create an American soccer town.
None of the arguments contained within will likely sway the cynics. They are not enough to inspire me to guarantees either. There are immutable concerns for a city that hasn’t shown a united civic or sporting pride with consistency. However, what I do know is that there is a very real potential for above average here. The arguments I’ve focused upon outline what are likely major advantages that have been essential aspects of previous MLS expansion sides’ success. To expect complete fulfillment of these advantages in a new region in a new era of MLS would admittedly be naïve. I may simply be overemphasizing a narrative I embrace to inspire confidence in order to neglect of a more ominous eventuality.
But the difficulty defining American soccer portends to the difficulty in estimating its grasp. At best one can look at the vessel and estimate the capacity. To return to my opening, it becomes clear that the argument for Atlanta is largely an argument born from the hope of what it could become. This conclusion, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to necessitate the narrative I’ve attempted to construct.
However, it does differentiate Atlanta from many of the previous expansion sides. In Orlando there is a very clear expectation. Nationally there were expectations of Philadelphia, of Montreal. There was an insurgence in Portland, and a collectivity in Seattle. As such Atlanta may be the most indeterminable expansion project yet, one that should cast doubts on certainties from both cynics and optimists. But Hope is a trait that exemplifies the sport in this country, and makes being a fan of it so worthwhile. In Atlanta it should be a trait that galvanizes a city that is ready to transition from hope to fulfillment.