SBJ/March 6-12, 2017/In Depth

Atlanta ready to take its place as soccer city

When Darren Eales was named president of Atlanta United in September 2014, he remembers some of the claims he heard about the city and its fans.

“When I was hired, the view was that Atlanta could potentially be an unsuccessful expansion team because the fans could be fickle,” he said.

Atlanta United FC merchandise sales rank near the top for the league.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
But ahead of its launch this season, the club sold more than 30,000 season tickets, a record for an MLS expansion team and a figure that will put it near the top of attendance across the league. The club signed a local television deal with Fox Sports South and Southeast that will help it reach more than 10 million households across six states, one of the largest local reaches in MLS. Merchandise sales and social media reach for the team already rank it near the top across the league, all before ever playing a game.

“Looking at things now, it just shows how that view was rubbish, and that this really is a soccer city,” he said.

Eales, who joined Atlanta from the Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur, said that sticking to the three objectives that were set by owner Arthur Blank has been key to this level of success: Having the best fan experience, making the team a fundamental part of the Atlanta community, and trying to get a winning team on the pitch.

“We’ve really tried to involve the fans on every step of our journey so far. They were there when we launched the team name, when we held our kit launch, for our first academy match and our first preseason match, where more than 8,000 fans came up from Atlanta to watch it in Chattanooga,” he said. “Each step was an exciting milestone, and we’ve watched that excitement grow as we get towards the first home game.”

While Sunday’s season-opening match was the next step in the club’s evolution, perhaps the most exciting moment will come on July 30, when Atlanta will play its first home match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which it will share with the Falcons. Currently, it is playing the first half of the 2017 season at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium until construction is complete.

It is also putting the final touches on its new $60 million training ground and academy that will open in April, for which the club has sold naming rights to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

While the off-field successes have been immense, Eales is aware of the track record for expansion teams in MLS — only one of 11 made the playoffs in its first season.

“We’ve tried to put together a team that is attractive to watch, but what we hope, regardless of results, is that people will come to games and love the atmosphere and environment,” Eales said. “We can control the fan experience, we can control putting the fan first, and we can show them that the journey is going upwards and we’re putting all the building blocks in place — like every team, we can’t control wins and losses.”

Ann Rodriguez, Atlanta United vice president of business operations, said regardless of metric, whether it’s social media followers or season-end point totals, expectations are high across the organization, something that is consistent across Blank’s family of businesses.

“We have a group of people here that love to succeed and love to win together and be a team, and as much as MLS is a collaborative league, we’re trying to make records that are really hard to break,” she said. “It’s almost like a decathlon — we’re trying to win across every single event.”

For Eales, it’s Blank’s support that has been key to much of the success thus far.

“We have an owner in Arthur who is not only committed to Atlanta United and soccer, but the city of Atlanta and all of the supporters,” he said. “The supporters know that. They see Arthur during the NFC championship game, and he’s got an Atlanta United pin on his coat under his Falcons pin. Two days after that game, he traveled down to Florida and spoke to our players at lunch on the first day of preseason, which meant so much to them.”

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