The major allure of being a football fan is the community, almost tribe-like, sense of belonging a club can provide. Changing support of a club is a general taboo, you stick with the club which represents your area of the country or the club your family supported and which you duly followed suit in supporting without hesitation as a child. This permanency of fandom is why MK Dons struggled to attract fans during its inception in 2004, a result of former Premier League side Wimbledon F.C officially relocating to Milton Keynes and changing its name. Only a very small minority of Wimbledon fans stuck with the club, with most going on to support the fan-made team A.F.C Wimbledon instead. MK Dons initially found it hard to garner fans in their new home of Milton Keynes, as most were already firm in supporting an existing team. There is an artform in convincing fans to support a new team, especially in your first ever season of existence.
Yet across the pond in America, a remarkable team have decided to buck the trend: Atlanta United, who garnered the highest attendance in MLS when 70,425 saw them play Orlando City, which beggars belief for two reasons:
1. The city itself has no historic legacy of ‘’soccer’’
2. This is their inaugural season as a club, so what has convinced fans of existing teams to switch allegiance?
Atlanta have created the perfect environment for success as a football club. They’ve embraced the community and the inimitable culture of the city to create a club which goes beyond football. Fans of a club have their own unique relationship with their team, some go to every game and invest their all into their side while others may go to one match as a social event, not too bothered about the result. Atlanta have so far balanced the tightrope and created a franchise that appeals to both spectrums of the fan market.
Atlanta itself, the capital of the state of Georgia, is as diverse a place as you’ll find in USA, a city of just under 500,000, fuelled by a young population with disposable income. Yet Atlanta is not a conventional place, it’s notable for its legendary Hip-Hop scene, which has bred award-winning acts for over twenty years now, from Outkast to Lil Jon -acts who all have crafted their own unique sound and subverted the traditions of the genre. The music scene encapsulates what the city is trying to do with their football: be unique. So far, many of Atlanta’s famed rappers, with no previous history of liking the sport, have attended games, such has been the pull of the club.
Atlanta native and season-ticket holder, Jason Weintraub, explains the nature of Atlanta as a city: ’’Atlanta is super diverse!,” he says. “ It’s a transplant city so you have people from all over the nation that moves here. It’s also diverse in ethnicities. Right now the city is having its young professional renaissance where young people are taking over, so Atlanta United works here because not only is it new, it’s appealing to all groups here. Young professionals, immigrants, even the guys that that usually only watch College football (rugby)’.
Yet Atlanta has been a place in the past that snubbed clubs rather than embraced them: NHL side Atlanta Thrashers were sold to Canadian owners in 2011 and thus relocated to Winnipeg, leaving a sporting void of sorts in the city, a void which was to be filled with a new football team.
The NFL side Atlanta Falcons were in the middle of gaining approval for a new stadium in 2012 when the idea was floated about to create a ‘’soccer’’ team for the region and share the new stadium. The south-east of America was seen as a neglected area for MLS commissioner Don Garber and he was keen to implement a new franchise in the city of Atlanta.
In 2014, Atlanta United FC officially became an MLS franchise, owned by Falcons owner Arthur Blank, with their debut season set to commence in 2017. They were to share the Atlanta Falcons newly constructed Mercedes Benz stadium, with a capacity of 83,000, which was due to be completed in late 2017.
Whereas expansion teams in the MLS from Philadelphia Union to New York City FC have had mixed fortunes when it comes to building support, Atlanta immediately struck a chord with locals, selling out 26,000 season tickets two years before even playing a game.
It also helped that the franchise decided to make astute signings for their inaugural season. Former US National player Carlos Bocanegra was made Technical Director in 2015 and in late 2016 they announced the remarkable coup of employing former Barcelona and Argentina Head Coach Gerado ‘’Tata’’ Martino. Players of relative quality were also added: striker Josef Martinez brought in from Torino, Kenywne Jones and Brad Guzan bringing with them invaluable Premier League experience, whilst a youth academy was launched in late 2016, a long-term plan to build home-grown stars that bore immediate rewards as their under-16 side won the national title this month, in their first full year as a team.
President of the club, Englishman Don Eales, emphasised the importance of youth development for the club: ‘’we want to get as much home-grown talent into the Atlanta team as we can. It doesn’t happen overnight, but we’ll be setting a philosophy in place—looking to get youngsters in the area, develop them, and give them the best practice, the best coaches. It will be like an English Premier League youth development structure.’’
Atlanta United’s senior stars kicked their MLS season off on March 5, 2017, at the smaller Bobby Dodd stadium, as their new stadium was seeing off last-minute constructions. 55,000 attended as they lost 2-1 to New York City FC. Not to be deterred, they scored 10constructions. next two league games, including a 6-1 drubbing of fellow new franchise Minnesota FC. Martinez scored five goals in those two games and has proved to be one of the signings of the season in MLS so far. The team’s ability to score has been their strength, with results including a 7-0 seige over New England Revolution and 4-0 drubbing of traditional heavyweight La Galaxy as they cemented a play-off spot in the 2017 MLS.
Although they lie mid-table in the MLS, the team has captured the imagination of US soccer fans not only for the sheer feel-good factor but also their mass fan appeal. On September 10th, they moved into the newly built Mercedes Benz stadium, a remarkable structure that is highlighted with a mass retractable roof shaped like a petal.
One thing that did intrigue me , was if there existed any moral dilemma for fans of a new club, presumably fans who supported a team before and who have left behind their previous club. Jason himself, was a die-hard Philadelphia Union fan before Atlanta United existed. ‘’ I’m in a very weird situation right now. I’m a season ticket holder in Atlanta, support the team, but I’m still a Philadelphia fan’’ he proclaims. ‘’Philadelphia is a team that doesn’t do any creative marketing, doesn’t really think about the fans and their needs, and is just a shit show. Even the stadium parking lot is still not paved and it’s been 7 years. For the longest time, the team’s practice facility was at a public park, they haven’t got the facilities.
‘’So when Atlanta comes along and does everything right. From promotions, to planning a style of play and scouting and finding the players that fit that style, to bringing culture into the team and game day experience, to professionalism at its finest, it’s literally like “Why haven’t I jumped ship?!’ But there’s the memories of me driving 2 hours each way on a Tuesday night to watch Philadelphia lose a championship, the whole team staying after and giving me a signed soccer ball, because they cared about the fans supporting… it’s tough, or it’s Stockholm syndrome. I’ll let you know when I find out.”
For newly-formed clubs in the future, particularly in USA, Atlanta United has set the standard and a perfect prototype on how to build a fanbase from scratch. They appeal to the local community by acknowledging the history of the city and their local heroes, as well as employing staff and players who have built a successful environment at the club – it’s not hard to see why America has fallen in love with the team. And you could too.
The question is whether the fairweather fans, those who have jumped into the hype surrounding the club, will stick around once the excitement of being ‘’new’’ inevitably wears off and games become part of a routine rather than a novelty. Atlanta United have re-written the rulebook on fandom, but whether it’s a long-lasting tale remains to be seen. And Football Paradise will be there to witness it.