By King Williams
I remember being up late in my cousin Chris’s open area ranch home living room off Columbia Drive in October of 1996 watching the Atlanta Braves lose the World Series to the New York Yankees despite having a commanding 2-0 lead.
My younger brother, my cousin and I were in utter disbelief at what we had just witnessed. The hypnotic glow of the wooden box TV set and the feeling of young, painful remorse was the first of many I have experienced as an Atlanta sports fan.
Whether it was the Braves losing the World Series in 1996, 1999; the Atlanta Dream losing in three WNBA Finals; Tim Dwight returning the opening kickoff in the 1999 Super Bowl only to be trounced by the Denver Broncos; Georgia Tech men’s basketball team losing to the University of Connecticut in the 2004 NCAA tournament, or the University of Georgia losing *(you could use last week’s game); the 2014-2015 Hawks getting swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers despite being the top team in the Eastern Conference, my experience with Atlanta fandom has been mostly a series of hopeful optimism only to be crushed by the reality.
For the record, Feb. 5, 2017 (didn’t happen…sigh,yes it did) Super Bowl loss will forever be the worst and most embarrassing loss in the history of the NFL.
Atlanta’s constant growth is due largely from the migration of people outside of the state but rarely do these people actually respect Atlanta. City and state leaders, as well as local sports teams, rarely show backbone. They fold easily under pressure – rarely taking a stand when it counts.
So when Atlanta was announced as being the latest Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise in 2014, I didn’t see how that would change our city. The MLS, until recently, had its own issues – struggling teams, inadequate TV contracts, fundraising troubles and lack of national awareness.
The MLS strategy of the last few decades has gone to smaller regional markets like Portland, Kansas City and Columbus, Ohio. It has done a good job of producing a dedicated fan culture, but not enough to make it a true national brand.
The MLS’ strategy of diversifying its base into core international and immigrant soccer markets such as Houston, Miami, New York City and Los Angeles is finally showing dividends.
Atlanta United is now at a culminating moment – having passionate local fans who live in a top 10 metro area – one with a growing diverse population.
Atlanta United is now the MLS’ premiere team, accounting for 25 percent of all merchandise sales for the entire league, selling more tickets than MLB’s Miami Marlins despite playing 1/8th of the games. It also is the most valuable team in MLS.
Atlanta United has done this by embracing all of Atlanta; the local, the gentrified, the diverse, the young, the transplant and international as well as local football fan. It has openly embraced Atlanta’s Hip Hop and R&B roots – creating a unique culture in global soccer.
Driving around the city, Atlanta United’s flags are on display in every neighborhood. Whether its Edgewood, Crescent Avenue or Peters Street, you inevitably will see people wearing an Atlanta United jersey with its five stripes.
Amazingly, the passion fans have for the Atlanta United has been largely been stoked by word of mouth and social media. Atlanta is still the college football capital of America; the Braves and the Hawks still have their fan base, but Atlanta United is attracting people who don’t normally watch American sports.
After watching the first half of Saturday night’s championship game at home, I had to go walk around the Moreland Avenue shopping center to lower my blood pressure. Although we had a 1-0 lead over Portland, I had been down this road before – let down by Atlanta’s sports teams.
When I walked into Kroger and glanced up at a television (when did Kroger get a TV?), I saw Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank being interviewed in a rain of confetti.
I yelled as if I had just been accepted to college again.
Atlanta United is a hometown product, succeeding on the highest levels, giving us a sense of validation and respect.
It’s a new legacy for Atlanta sports. Atlanta United is the team we’ve been wanting for a long time.