MLS is an odd place. It's a top flight league working under a single-entity structure with players signed to the league as well as to individual clubs, and one mechanism for league growth: expansion. That expansion results from either the promotion of an existing club (a la Seattle, Portland, Orlando, etc.) or the creation of an entirely new one ex nihilo (like NYCFC, Philadelphia, or your humble Atlanta United Football Club). When clubs start from scratch in MLS, questions about players, coaches, front office, and facilities tend to dominate the headlines, and how a team gets all of those things in place. What doesn't get much attention is the image and brand a club sets up for itself.
Sure, everyone gets a logo (or a crest, if calling it that helps you sleep better at night), but the indelible image of a club is just as important as any superficial branding it creates, the picture that comes to mind when people hear a team's name. A club, whether consciously or not, creates that image with everything that it does on and off the field. Starting from absolute zero has its drawbacks, obviously. But it also offers a clean slate to draw out how you want to be represented. If you had absolutely no identity to start with, what would you choose to show to the world? How would you choose to define yourself?
The hype video that Atlanta United FC released Thursday goes a long way towards establishing an identity for the club. It's the first really curated and manicured piece of advertisement that's come out of the club in a way that's designed to establish identity on multiple levels and via multiple mediums of the senses: sight combined with sound. As far as hype videos go, this one certainly isn't the most complex or original to ever come out, nor would it probably be the most engaging. It is, after all, mostly pans of the Atlanta skyline coupled with highlights from other MLS teams, the construction of Mercedes Benz, and the official logo unveiling. But it is succinct and clear, and I could easily see it being played before Youtube videos with its initial hook: "It's time, Atlanta" (punctuation added because I'm a nerd).
This is not just a soccer video and it's not just an MLS video. It's a video for Atlanta, explicitly to sell more tickets, and implicitly to build as much connection to the city as the club possibly can. Attempting to connect deeply with the people you claim to represent on the field is not a new move for sports advertisement; in fact, it's the oldest and often the best move. However, Atlanta's hype video cannot help but stand out from similar offerings different clubs have made in recent history. Take for example these two videos released by Orlando City SC and the Portland Timbers, respectively:
Yes, the Orlando video is more an unveiling of their new crest. But both videos play on the emotions of its viewers and attempt to establish their brand in a bigger way than their clubs had previously advertised. Portland relies on Timber Joey and their very cool ad campaign in which fans are given axes and chainsaws to take pictures with, which in turn become pictures on billboards throughout Portland and on Providence Park itself. Orlando lets their fans explain what the club means to them and request what they would like to see out of a new crest. Supporters play an integral role in both ads, and along with the cities they play with, create a view of what the club supposedly values: it's city, it's supporters, and the municipal pride those two entities foster in one another. Atlanta's video also does this.
But Atlanta's video has something very specific which the two aforementioned videos do not. Portland's video features a supporter chant turned into a marching band drum beat. Orlando's video has some dramatic strings thrown in there for effect. Atlanta United: rap.
Rap and hip-hop culture has become incredibly emblematic of Atlanta's identity as a city, so the choice makes perfect sense in that regard. However, MLS as a league-wide entity hasn't embraced hip-hop and black culture in as big of a way as, say, Latino culture (all jokes about the Latino Player of the Year award aside). While some fan groups co-opt hip-hop images for displays and chants (SKC's The Cauldron and Portland's Timbers Army come to mind), many remain unconvinced that they want to have anything to do with hip hop culture. Behold: insensitivity.
America has spoken. Hip Hop culture = thugs. https://t.co/W7zxtFh3Gk— Shawn Francis (@TheOffsideRules) February 5, 2016
Yeah, those people exist.
Look, maybe you don't think that the selection of a rap song is a big deal here. Triplet flows and Young Jeezy might not change your life, which is fine. But I don't think that having a rap song in that hype video is an accident, either, and I certainly don't think it's an accident that one of the images from around the league that was selected to appear in that video was a tifo featuring a reference to Run the Jewels, a critically-acclaimed rap duo comprised of New York-based El-P and Killer Mike, a prominent rapper and political activist in Atlanta. Atlanta is trying to embrace this culture in a way no other MLS club really has, which is a smart move on their part, really.
Nearly half of Atlanta's population is African-American, but as of 2013, only about 8% of MLS's viewership was comprised of African-Americans or other black viewers. If they can reach that group, it will be breath of fresh air into the MLS supporter scene, which tends to style itself after European and South American counterparts. Now obviously, not all black viewers are attracted to hip hop, and "hip hop culture" and "black culture" or people are not synonymous. But Atlanta has been a hub of black excellence for decades now, and to ignore one of the most popular cultural movements in the black community would be as ludicrous as the way MLS has relatively ignored the already-present black community in MLS and MLS fandom. And even more than that, hip hop is a distinctly American genre of music, born out of struggle, protest, and African-American ingenuity.
A supporter scene steeped in hip-hop would be uniquely American, and that's not only a necessary step in the progression of MLS fandom, but it's also historic, not to mention pretty damn cool.