I recently witnessed the most amazing thing.
Forty-five thousand people gathered in Dixie to watch a team sport that doesn't involve a pigskin (football) or a cowhide (baseball).
My two sons and I just got back from a crazy, sold-out soccer game in Atlanta. Out of nowhere, Atlanta has gone from being a relative nonentity in the soccer world to the pride of the MLS, America's top professional soccer league.
Last year was Atlanta United FC's inaugural season in MLS, yet it led the league in attendance with an average of 48,200 fans attending games split between Georgia Tech's vintage Bobby Dodd Stadium and Atlanta's gleaming new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. By contrast, many MSL teams play in cozy, 20,000-seat soccer venues and draw as few as 15,000 fans per game.
Yes, something peculiar and exciting is happening in the A-T-L.
Interestingly, the smaller-scale success of our hometown team, Chattanooga FC, earlier this decade may have foretold the Atlanta soccer explosion. Many were amazed that our local side could draw 5,000 to 10,000 fans to Finley Stadium for a regular-season game. Multiply that by 10 — the rough population spread between the Chattanooga and Atlanta metro areas — and the Peach State's instant embrace of MLS soccer is not quite so surprising.
This year, Atlanta United FC drew more than 70,000 fans to its season opener in Mercedes-Benz Stadium (shared home of the Atlanta Falcons), the third time it has accomplished the feat since moving there in the middle of of last season.
For most games, though, the soccer team closes and curtains off the upper deck of M-B Stadium, resulting in a restricted capacity of about 45,000. Five times this season, the third-deck curtains will be thrown back, inviting those NFL-like 70,000-plus attendance numbers.
I never thought we'd see a Deep South city fall hard for "the beautiful game," but 2018 has reaffirmed Atlanta's burgeoning reputation as a model for MLS, which is considered several notches below the best European leagues.
How did this happen in the heart of SEC Country, and in an NFL cathedral, to boot?
If I may, let me suggest a few possible reasons:
» Embrace diversity. A scan of the crowd at Atlanta United's 5-0 drubbing of Los Angeles FC earlier this month revealed an interesting crowd mix. By my eyeball estimate, about one-third of the crowd was made up of young (single?) professionals, about a third of the fans were of Hispanic origin and the remaining third was a traditional family crowd like you might see at a Braves game.
If you have any doubt that Atlanta is an emerging international city, I'd suggest you attend an Atlanta United game. Even the team's roster reflects the trend.
The lineup includes players from four continents: North America, South America, Europe and Africa. The coach, Gerardo "Tata" Martino, is a former Argentine player and coach who also once managed FC Barcelona, one of the European superteams. Star midfielder Miguel Almiron is from Paraguay. The team just acquired the rights to 19-year-old Argentine star Ezequiel Barco for a reported $15 million transfer fee, a league record.
» Price sensitivity. One of the pleasures of attending a game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium is reasonably priced concessions. I bought a large Coke (with free refills), an order of nachos (for one son) and a bucket of popcorn (for the other) all for $9.
For some reason, concessions prices stick in your mind.
Tickets for the game were a bit pricey, though, about $80 each for lower-deck, corner seats on the the secondary market. Parking was $30 in a surface lot about three blocks from the stadium. Lower ticket prices are available for the full-stadium games this summer and fall. You can search www.atlutd.com for more ticket info.
» Success breeds success. The Atlanta United FC club made the playoffs in 2017, its first season, only the third time an expansion team has accomplished such a feat. This year, the team is also off to a winning start and features an attacking style of play favored by Martino.
Its knack for attracting emerging stars — who wouldn't want to be part of America's most exciting new MLS franchise — is creating a virtuous cycle that has some people speculating that the team could soon compete for an MLS championship, something the football Falcons have never been able to deliver in the NFL.
Nobody is saying that American football is on the decline, only that the game the rest of the world calls "football" is on the rise in the South. For those of of baby-boom vintage and beyond, that's an amazing thing — something many of us never thought we'd live to see.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645.