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Volume 21 No. 13
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Reimagining Atlanta

With new venues and the biggest of big events, city and its teams build a significant sports culture

The Braves moved into their new home, SunTrust Park in Cobb County, in the spring and put the team closer to where their fans live.
From an office overlooking the pitch at Atlanta United’s new training grounds, the expansion franchise’s chief architect flashed back on the reaction he got when he left a front office job with English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur to head an MLS startup in the de facto capital of the New South.

“When I took the job, the only negative I had was people saying, ‘Be careful, you’re going to Atlanta. It’s a difficult sports town,’” said Darren Eales, a British-born lawyer who was Ivy League Player of the Year in soccer while studying at Brown. “They’d lost the hockey team. If you go to a Braves or Falcons or Hawks game you tend to have a disproportionate amount of fans that are there for the opposition team.

“That was what everyone was telling me.”

This long has been the sports narrative of Atlanta, going back a half century through the struggles of the relocated, but poorly attended, Braves, who were in the bottom three in attendance in the National League through every season from 1971 to ’81, and the expansion Falcons, who lost more games than they won in 27 of their first 35 seasons.

The market reset in 1996, when the Olympics put it on the global sports map. The Braves opened a new ballpark, the Hawks moved into a spiffy new arena and the city got its second shot at an NHL team, all by 1999. In 2000, Atlanta hosted both the Super Bowl and the MLB All-Star Game. In 2002, the Georgia Dome put on the Final Four.

A new ballpark. A state-of-the-art arena. A popular expansion team in a sport that had flopped in the city before. And a domed stadium that could lure the biggest of events.

Survey the sports landscape of Atlanta today and you might feel as if you’re having a flashback.

There’s a new ballpark for the Braves in the fast-growing Cobb County suburbs. And a spectacular new stadium set to replace the Georgia Dome in the fall. The Hawks have begun a $192.5 million transformation of Philips Arena that will play out in two phases over the next 15 months. And the expansion MLS club purchased by Falcons owner Arthur Blank is on its way to the league’s most successful launch ever.

As for big events, the new stadium that the Falcons will share with United has landed an unprecedented trio: The College Football Playoff in 2018, the Super Bowl in 2019 and the Final Four in 2020.

When it’s all completed, Atlanta will have seen about $2.5 billion in new or renovated sports facilities in this latest spate of cranes and concrete. United recently opened a $60 million club headquarters. The Hawks soon will move into a new $50 million practice facility and, in a few years, open a new arena near the airport for a G League franchise.

Steve Cannon has been in Atlanta for fewer than two years. Like many, he came via a corporate transfer, spearheading Mercedes-Benz’s relocation of its U.S. headquarters from Montvale, N.J. He met Blank late in 2014, while the auto manufacturer was in town site shopping, introduced only as a representative of “company x.”

The two got to know each other better the following summer, when the Falcons landed Mercedes-Benz as naming-rights sponsor. When Blank decided to step back from day-to-day management of his holdings — the Falcons, Atlanta United, the PGA Tour Superstore chain and a Montana ranch — he hired Cannon as CEO.

Pointing to a rendering of the new stadium hanging on the wall of his Buckhead office, Cannon compared the current period of Atlanta sports to the one that put it on the global map during the Olympics.

“Between the Philips renovation, the Braves concept and what they did, and now this, is there a sports town in America that has invested more in its infrastructure?” Cannon asked. “Absolutely not. It is just incredible.”

Among each of the three legacy franchises, there is a palpable sense that this infusion will invigorate sports in Atlanta. The Braves say their move put them closer to their demonstrated ticket buyers. The Falcons head to their new building coming off the momentum of a Super Bowl appearance. The Hawks have a slew of business metrics on the rise over the last three years.

Confidence is high.

And yet, based upon its spotty sports history, there is reason for skepticism.

It could be that there are reasons that the last wave of new facilities failed to turn Atlanta boffo for its teams; that the Falcons had to have a transformational star like Michael Vick show up, or go on a Super Bowl run, to rally intense interest, and still couldn’t sustain it; that the Hawks struggled to fill the arena even though they made the playoffs in all but four seasons from 1977 to ’99, and every year for the last 10 years; that the Braves saw annual attendance decline from 3.5 million to 2.5 million in their first nine years at Turner Field, even though they made the playoffs every time.

Atlanta sports venues (interactive)

It could be that Atlanta, for reasons beyond the influence of a savvy marketer or a winning team, is just, as several who came to work there of late were warned, a prickly place in which to sell sports.

Posit this to Falcons President and CEO Rich McKay, who has spent many a rubber chicken luncheon reminding business leaders and fans of the important role of sports in Atlanta’s economy, and he responds with a well-rehearsed takedown of the premise.

It begins with a rundown of Atlanta’s vast menu of sporting options, the roster of pro teams outlined above, plus the major college programs of Georgia Tech and nearby Georgia, a major motorsports speedway, a long-standing stop on the PGA Tour and a steady stream of big SEC football and basketball events.

“Nobody else has that girth,” said McKay, who joined the Falcons in 2003 after a decade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “But our story doesn’t read well historically because the franchises haven’t delivered. It’s not the fan bases that haven’t delivered. It’s the franchises. That’s the simple fact of life.”

Before McKay relocated to Atlanta, he heard similar criticisms of the Tampa Bay region. “Everybody said you need to move [the team],” McKay said. But McKay and Bucs ownership persevered, and two years into his tenure voters approved funding for a new stadium.

“Five years later we announced that we had an 85,000-person waiting list that was real, with names and phone numbers,” McKay said, smiling. “Maybe it was a good pro football town. You know why?

“We were winning.”

Rendering shows how Philips Arena’s center-hung video board and reconfigured seating — from roofline to baseline — will look after a $192.5 million renovation.

Adopting the home team

Of the presidents of the city’s four major pro sports franchises, only one is a bona fide Georgian. Hawks CEO Steve Koonin was raised in Atlanta, went to school at UGA, then rose rapidly up the ladder at Coca-Cola, where he oversaw sports marketing. He left to run the Turner Entertainment Networks, where he spent the next 14 years before taking over the Hawks.

He’s used to joking about being the rare local.

“We don’t breed well in captivity. There’s about 10 of us,” quipped Koonin, who took the helm of the franchise three years ago, when it was in the midst of off-court turmoil. “Most people aren’t from here. So it’s become a generational sports town. An older generation who moved here have allegiance to the way they were raised and the way they found their favorite teams. But there also are 2.1 million 18- to 44-year-olds in Atlanta.

“That generation is becoming a very good sports fan.”

The Hawks’ internal research shows a market that is increasingly engaged with its home teams, Koonin said.

But even in the demo that Koonin points to as promising, Atlanta is made up mostly of people who have come from elsewhere, with only 40 percent of those 18 to 44 born in the state of Georgia. Comparing the roots of people in metro markets in Atlanta’s weight class reveals an intriguing difference between several sports towns that generally are considered to be rabid and those that seem to flit in and out of their fandom.

Atlanta’s numbers bear out its reputation as a city of transplants. Only 35 percent of those age 25 to 74 in the Atlanta MSA were born in Georgia. By comparison, 49 percent of that segment in Boston were born in Massachusetts. Fifty-six percent of those in that age in Philadelphia were born in Pennsylvania. And 71 percent of the same age group in Detroit were born in Michigan.

Even the fast-growing Sun Belt cities of Dallas and Houston have a higher percentage of Texas-born residents than Atlanta has Georgians, at 42 and 41 percent, respectively.

The spread is even greater when you consider it from the standpoint of people who were born in other U.S. states — in other words, those who are most likely to come to town with an allegiance already baked in. Considering age 25 to 74, that number in Atlanta is 45 percent. In Boston, it’s 16 percent. It’s 28 percent in Philly, 26 percent in Houston and 32 percent in Dallas.

In raw numbers, the Atlanta metro has about 1 million more people than Boston and about 1.4 million more than Detroit. But it actually has fewer state-born residents in that vast 25 to 74 age bracket than either of them.

Those numbers are magnified as income increases. Only 29 percent of those who earn more than $50,000 a year — a relatively modest figure for the market — were born in Georgia. That number is 50 percent or higher in Boston, Philly and Detroit, and more than 40 percent in Houston and Dallas.

Winning by comparison

Though often dinged for not winning, the truth is that through the last two decades, Atlanta’s teams compare favorably with those in most of eight markets of a similar size: Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Miami, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Washington. 

Over that span, the Braves, Falcons and Hawks combined numbers were better than the combined average of teams in those other markets in winning percentage (.514 to .509), winning seasons (36 to 32.8), playoff seasons (32 to 26) and seasons in a conference championship game (8 to 7.8). Atlanta was below average in championship game appearances (4.1 to 3) and, of course, championships (2 to 0).

Only Atlanta, Houston and Washington failed to win a title in any of those three leagues during that 20-year span. Boston won nine and Miami won five.

— Bill King
So what does this all mean? For perspective, consider the three markets that are even more transient than Atlanta. Two of those metros have only 18 percent of their age 25-74 residents born in-state and one has only 23 percent. In all three markets, fewer than 20 percent of state-born residents earn more than $50,000 a year. In two of them, more than 50 percent of people age 25-74 came from another U.S. state.

Dig back through the history of most of the teams in those three markets — Washington, Miami and Phoenix — and you’ll find storylines similar to those of Atlanta.
And reputations to match.

There are decades of research to support the theory that people most often are socialized into sports the way they are into other traditions, following the lead of family and friends. This isn’t to say that they won’t move from team to team, or that they can’t quickly become avid fans of a new favorite team. But that’s typically not the default.

“When you consider the ways many of us become fans, I think there’s a challenge with a large transient population,” said Dan Funk, director of research and Ph.D. programs in the school of sport, tourism and hospitality management at Temple University. “The question is how long does it take the average person to start adopting the attitudes and preferences of his community?

“When you see your co-worker or neighbor or the person at the coffee shop, what do they think of the sports teams? When we move to a new community, we become acculturated, where we start to adopt some of the preferences and habits of those around us. If it’s a strong sports town, it’s probably more likely to galvanize interest. If it’s not, I might not be drawn in.”

Funk points out that nothing says a transplant can’t be a fan of more than one team, cheering for their childhood teams when they come to town while building an allegiance to their new town’s teams.

This is a dynamic that’s familiar to all the Atlanta sports executives.

“You’re never going to get a die-hard Pittsburgh fan who happens to have a corporate assignment in Atlanta to suddenly make Atlanta supplant Pittsburgh as their No. 1 team,” Cannon said. “It will not happen. But I’ll be thrilled as a marketer to make Atlanta the second favorite team on their list, but the only team that they have direct access to.”

Cannon is convinced that the best way to draw in those transplants is through their children. The team’s research shows that while adult preferences are driven by a range of factors, kids typically gravitate toward things based on what’s popular at school.

“How many decisions do you make because of your children?” Cannon asked. “They play a huge role in the decisions of the parents. It was that way even in the car business. What they say to mom and dad has an impact, period. So, if suddenly through Falcons Fridays in the school programs and excitement in the city all these kids are asking for Julio [Jones] jerseys and Matt Ryan jerseys, dad and mom are going to get pulled along.

“I don’t ever want to supplant Pittsburgh or whoever that home passion is. I know we can’t. But I don’t think we need to for us to be super successful as a franchise.”

The Falcons’ $1.5 billion retractable roof stadium is set to open Aug. 26 with a preseason NFL game. It will host the CFP title game in January.
Photo by: AMB GROUP
Neither does Koonin.

“We’re absolutely not the Boston Celtics,” Koonin said. “There’s not a heritage like that here. But we’re really starting to have a generation of Atlantans who are adopting the sports teams here as their teams rather than inheriting their father’s passion for the Chicago Bulls. We’ve done a ton of work in this area.

“If you don’t understand your audience, you have no chance to be successful.”

For a sport that’s new to the city, the transplant population is an advantage.

“I think, ironically, that this perception of why Atlanta is a poor sports town, this idea that it’s a city of transplants, actually has helped us,” Eales said. “Take a 25-year-old brought up in Philadelphia who moves here. He’ll have gone to see the Eagles with his dad. The Eagles are his team and it will be that little bit of home that I liken it to the experience of an expat. You’re never more avid as an England fan as when you’re living abroad.

“Soccer is such a new sport in this country that people don’t have that baggage. So, actually, what I think is happening is that people love Atlanta, but they’ve got these former clubs that they support in American football and basketball. And soccer is the team that they now can say, ‘Right, I’ve got my Atlanta team.’ Because they don’t carry the baggage.”

It’s an Atlanta thing

At a streetside table outside the new ballpark that the Atlanta Braves opened earlier this year in Cobb County, the team’s president of business thought back to the manner in which pro sports arrived in Atlanta in the late ’60s and early ’70s, as if sprayed from a firehose, first MLB and the NFL, then the NBA two years later and the NHL four years after that.

In those days, the metro area had fewer that 2 million people. By 1995, it had 3.6 million. Today, Atlanta has the nation’s ninth-largest metro population at almost 5.8 million, with a growth rate of 8 percent since 2010. It’s also the ninth-largest TV market. It has more Fortune 500 headquarters than all but New York, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

By each of those metrics, Atlanta looks like the markets that host teams in all five major pro leagues. Its metro GDP sits about halfway between the median for markets that have four teams and markets that have five.

“Not only should it be of sufficient size, it has a very significant sports culture,” said Braves President Derek Schiller, who came to town in 1995 to work on the Olympics, and then helped launch the NHL Thrashers as vice president of marketing before joining the Braves in 2003. “But there’s also a dynamic to it that makes it extremely unique … People move here from outside the Southeast and they come here with other allegiances already in place. So Atlanta has had to build with other people’s associations.

“That’s a really big deal.”

That said, Schiller acknowledges that the Braves have felt the drag of that less than the other pro franchises, benefiting from the national profile that the team created during its Superstation days, as well as the fact that it is the lone Atlanta team that has won a championship.

The Braves issue hasn’t been the size of its fan base. It’s been the precipitous decline in the rate at which it buys tickets.

When the Braves hired Schiller, it was to engineer a redesign of the club’s business operations. One of his first initiatives with the marketing department was to gauge what fans liked and disliked about games at Turner Field.

Their chief complaints were the same year after year, Schiller said. Traffic was unbearable. Parking was frustrating and sometimes felt unsafe. And, for fans who hoped to ease the pains of those shortcomings by arriving early or staying late, there were no bars or restaurants nearby to help them fill the time.

“We had 16 lanes of highway separating us from downtown, plus about a mile walk,” he said, pointing as if still in range of the brutal I-85/I-20 junction. “So if you can find somebody that actually walked from a downtown hotel to Turner Field, I will tell you that they made a mistake. And it was a mistake that they will not repeat again.”

While Turner may have looked like a downtown ballpark on some postcards, it never actually functioned as one, cut off from easy pedestrian access and so devoid of palatable mass transit that only 6 percent of Braves fans reported using it.

These are the facts that Schiller has presented often through the past few years, as colleagues from other cities quizzed him on the club’s seemingly upstream swim against the current of sporting venues as urban catalysts.

It’s not an urban versus suburban thing, he argues. It’s an Atlanta thing.

“You have to understand Atlanta to really make sense of what we did,” Schiller said. “As you do, it’s very logical.”

Though SunTrust Park is built astride an interstate, as Turner Field was, the ballpark is encircled not by surface lots but by a 50-acre mixed-use development with restaurants, shopping, residential, offices, a hotel and a music venue. Frustrated by years of haggling with the city over development of property around Turner Field, Braves ownership decided to undertake the task — and accept the associated risk — on their own.

“We want people to live nearby and work nearby,” Schiller said. “And we want to be the beneficiary of it.”

While the real estate opportunity was attractive, the Braves have, from the beginning, led the explanation for their move 14 miles up the interstate with the assertion that, by doing so, they were making the trip to games more convenient to the majority of their fans.

To sell that point, the team released a heat map of its ticket buyers, which showed thick blotches of red in the northern burbs, much of it beyond the new ballpark site.

The next time Blank met with Falcons management, he brought an urgent request.

“I want to see our heat map,” Blank told McKay. “Have you guys been studying that?”

“Yes, we have,” McKay told him. “Ours is not theirs.”

All the other Atlanta teams say their heat maps are far less suburban than the one released by the Braves. The Falcons say their buyers are spread more evenly across the metro area and beyond. The Hawks and United say theirs are more concentrated in the city’s close-in neighborhoods.

Rich McKay (with Falcons owner Arthur Blank) enters his 14th season in Atlanta and was formerly GM in Tampa Bay.
“I understand the logic behind what the Braves are saying,” said Hawks Chief Operating Officer Thad Sheely, who joined the franchise in 2015, attracted by the chance to work on the arena renovation and open a practice facility and a G-League building. “If you commute to the suburbs, there’s traffic and it’s bad. But that’s not something that’s been an issue for us. Our target is more millennial and multicultural and in town.”

Michael Drake worked as a consultant on the Falcons stadium project for Legends Global Sales, heading up suite and PSL sales, before segueing into a similar position as a senior vice president with the Falcons last year. Before moving onto the Falcons project, he worked on new stadiums for the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys.

While the Cowboys and 49ers would be considered far stronger brands, Drake said the Falcons actually converted season-ticket and suite holders from their old stadium to the new one at a higher rate than either the Cowboys or Niners, about 60 percent. And they did it coming off a season (2013) in which they’d only won four games, while adding PSLs and raising ticket prices a bit.

“That is kind of a definition of a good sports town,” Drake said. “Are there better ones? Sure. We are not New York or Boston. But I think we’re coming up. That, and the opportunity to work for a guy like Arthur with his big vision, is why I left a business and an agency that I loved.”

A clean canvas

When Eales thinks back to the warnings he got before taking on soccer in Atlanta, he chuckles. Halfway through its first season, the expansion club is on the way to the most successful launch in MLS history, better even than that of the once-seemingly unreachable Seattle Sounders.

Playing at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd football stadium, they have sold out every game, averaging more than 46,000. Their inaugural game was the fourth most attended in the world that weekend, behind only Manchester United, AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund. In March, it had the second-highest-selling jersey in the country through Dick’s Sporting Goods, trailing only the Chicago Cubs.

Atlanta United recently opened its $60 million training complex in Marietta, which includes six full-size fields and a 30,000-square-foot headquarters building.

“Whether it’s from South America or Europe, I can’t tell you the number of friends that have been calling me up saying, ‘Bloody hell, what’s happening with you guys?’” Eales said. “Our numbers have us in the top 30 in the world in average attendance. So they’re looking at it saying ‘What the hell is happening in Atlanta?’”

To be sure, part of what is happening is connected to a savvy strategy that connected with a very specific target. United went hard after those who expressed a hunger for an MLS team in town, then empowered them to spread the word. They built almost exclusively through grassroots strategies, amplified by social media. The club didn’t buy a billboard until a week before its debut game, after it had already sold upward of 20,000 season tickets.

It proved the ideal strategy in that sport, in that town, at this time.

Perhaps, just as the newness of a franchise launch gave United a chance at a clean canvas, the new venues will give the incumbent teams a reset that leads to prolonged business success.

Photo by: AP IMAGES
Braves fans already have seen the early impact of The Battery, which is attracting people to its bars and restaurants even on non-game nights.

The Hawks say the design of their renovation will be a better match for their fans, eliminating the wall of premium seats and suites that cut Philips Arena in half and creating an experience more conducive to the “great night out” that their target audience values. The inclusion of a barber shop by rapper Killer Mike is a nod to Atlanta’s vibrant African-American community, which comprises 46 percent of Hawks ticket buyers.

The wide concourses of the Falcons’ new stadium will offer food from more than a dozen local restaurants, with about 65 percent more points of sale than fans had at the Georgia Dome. The team also has made much of its pricing, which moves away from the massive fan-as-hungry-hostage markups of most sports venues.

“This is a big, important moment for Atlanta,” Cannon said. “We’ve got a pretty hot team that has the prospects of staying relevant for a number of years. But had we not done what we’ve done here, and done just a stock renovation, it wouldn’t have taken this moment to that next level potential that I believe it offers for all of us.”

Outside the first team’s locker room at Atlanta United’s training grounds, in the hallway through which players pass on their way to the pitch, the walls on each side are covered with imagery, along with the franchise’s tag phrase, Unite and Conquer. On the wall dedicated to Conquer is a shot of the celebration following the first goal in franchise history. Across from it, the Unite side of the wall features a photo of fans.

“We make this about Atlanta, and that is bearing fruit now,” Eales said. “It works perfectly for our fan base.

“Once you turn the narrative it feeds off itself. I’m hoping we in our small way can kick-start that change in mentality. Because it’s phenomenal what’s happening here.”