The last Atlanta saw of meaningful football (the other one), the Falcons they were throwing away a sure thing by doing everything in their power to give back every point and more of the 28-3 lead the team held over the New England Patriots. Luckily, there is always next year and the NFL preseason has already begun. Along with the Falcons, Atlanta has a vibrant College football scene with Georgia Tech, Georgia State, UGA, and just about every other SEC school having a following of some kind in the city.
So far, Atlanta United hasn’t had a lot of competition for sports fans in town. The Braves moved to Cobb County perhaps giving fans a reason to embrace a soccer team that in part sought to appeal to young fans that were already drifting away from baseball. Although the Hawks made the playoffs coinciding with the opening of the MLS season, they were eliminated by the time April ended. This, in part at least, has enabled Atlanta United to gain a strong following in the city.
There is no doubt that the team and fans deserve a lot of credit. Atlanta United has built something truly special and unique among MLS teams and it has the chance to continue making history. As John Fuller detailed, selling out the Benz would give the Five Stripes the distinction of drawing the largest single game audience in MLS history. The club has sold out nine straight home games and is averaging over 45,000 spectators a match and have exceeded all expectations so far in its inaugural season.
Those numbers show that soccer can indeed work in Atlanta. Supporters are also showing the notion that Atlanta isn’t a good sports city is, and really always has been, unfounded. Mercedes Benz Stadium has the potential to further set history for Atlanta United and the league, but the supporters will have to show that another image about the city isn’t true on further examination. As Ludacris pointed out early in the season:
Atlanta always loves something new. I hope that we keep up those same [attendance] numbers. Because, whenever a new club opens in Atlanta, everybody will go to it and give it a couple of months or a couple of years and all of a sudden they want to go somewhere else.
Luda is right, Atlanta has the unfortunate tendency of heartlessly replacing what it once loved in the pursuit of newer and sometimes gilded pursuits. In sports, Turner Field and the Georgia Dome are examples of this. Elsewhere, luxury apartments are leading to the demolition of Atlanta music landmark The Masquerade and even Murder Kroger is not safe from the relentless push of the new replacing the old.
Atlanta United could fall victim to something new losing its appeal as something else comes along. The team will open Mercedes Benz Stadium only a few hours after the Atlanta Falcons take on the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. It will also be the same weekend that Georgia Tech takes on Jacksonville State and UGA faces off with Notre Dame.
That is a fair bit more competition than the Five Stripes have had for sports fans’ attention spans so far this season. Add to it that United will play seven home games between September 10th and October 3rd, including four weeknight games, and the Five Stripes are in for a big test not only on the field but in the stands as well.
So far, fans haven’t given the front office any indication that their focus on the team is fading. United still has sold out its season tickets for the year and is taking orders for a waitlist in 2018. Opening Mercedes Benz Stadium will help negate some of these issues. The stadium being a different venue, and a soccer focused one according to the front office, for fans will offer new gameday experience distinct from the one fans had at Bobby Dodd. On a more practical level, MBS has more convenient transit options for games with weeknight kickoffs and fan friendly concession prices will make the games coming up during football season attractive for supporters.
Atlanta United fans have shown time and again that they can prove notions about the city’s sports culture wrong. The Five Stripes have been the hottest ticket in town and fans have shown that there is a vibrant, strong soccer following in the city. The opening of football season will provide another opportunity to show how committed the city is to its new favorite team.