ATLANTA — As a resident of the city that will host Super Bowl LIII, let me be the first to welcome the world to a place that has changed a lot since the big game was last here 19 years ago.
First and foremost, the game will take place in a $1.6 billion marvel of technology that replaced the Georgia Dome, which wasn’t bad in its own right. Likewise, the city has transformed itself with a population burst of about 40%, bringing more traffic and congestion but also terrific new museums and attractions, reinvigorated neighborhoods and world-class restaurants. Combined with an airport that offers easy in-and-out for visitors and plenty of downtown hotels, it is now arguably the premiere host city for major events in the entire country.
But even as Atlanta has evolved into a booming, world-class metropolis and the cultural epicenter of the American South, there’s still one unfortunate label Atlanta hasn’t shaken: bad sports town.
Prior to the Super Bowl two years ago that featured the Atlanta Falcons against the New England Patriots, Dan Shaughnessy wrote sneeringly in the Boston Globe that Atlanta was “a town with absolutely zero enthusiasm for professional sports.” In 2012, Rob Parker wrote for ESPN.com that the Falcons didn’t deserve to beat the New York Giants in a playoff game because “Without question, Atlanta is the worst sports town in America” and “the bottom of the barrel when it comes to fan support.”
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This has been a familiar narrative on Atlanta for at least a couple decades, beginning when media members started to notice empty seats for afternoon Braves playoff games during their run of National League dominance in the 1990s and continuing through seasons when the Hawks ranked toward the bottom of the NBA’s attendance standings and the Thrashers became the second NHL team to leave town.
But as Atlanta moves into the national spotlight again this week, the reality isn’t as simple or accurate as the lazy, tired potshots at sports fans here would suggest.
“Atlanta has been an easy punching bag,” said Wes Durham, who has been the radio play-by-play announcer for the Falcons since 2004 and was the voice of Georgia Tech from 1995 to 2013. “But Atlanta invariably is compared against markets that have that have pro sports a lot longer than this one. They’ve only been here for 53 years, so it’s not a traditional sports market like some of these other places that puff their chest out. When you talk about Boston, Pittsburgh, New York, Chicago, L.A., those are all older professional sports markets. But to me, if it wasn’t a good sports town, the Super Bowl wouldn’t be here. Final Fours wouldn’t be here. The (College Football Playoff) national title game wouldn’t be here.”
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If the criticism of Atlanta is that it’s the kind of town where you can usually walk up to the window 10 minutes before tip-off of a mid-week Hawks game and get a decent seat or that a few thousand Falcons fans decide not to show up once the team is eliminated from playoff contention, well, guilty as charged.
But there are some legitimate reasons for that, suggesting not that Atlantans are apathetic about their teams but rather that they’re perhaps more sensible and well-adjusted than their counterparts in other markets.
First and foremost, Atlanta has been a city defined by exploding economic growth and rapid demographic shifts thanks to the numerous Fortune 500 and 1000 companies that headquartered here and the transplants who flocked from other areas to work for them. According to the most recent U.S. Census data, 37% of Metro Atlanta’s population was born outside of Georgia, the highest of any major city in the country.
But that also meant the arrival of millions of people whose sports fandom was largely already established. Would it be reasonable to tell someone from St. Louis they should no longer be a Cardinals fan and instead root for the Braves?
That’s not the kind of change you can realistically make without a generation growing up here, which is just now happening for people who moved to Atlanta in the population boom that occurred after hosting the 1996 Olympics.
“Cities that are mainly pro cities tend to look down on Atlanta because it’s just young as a pro city,” said Gary Stokan, CEO of the Peach Bowl and previously president of the Atlanta Sports Council. “The colleges in the South were the pro teams for a lot of years. Everything takes time, but more people are moving out of the North and the Midwest to come South, so Atlanta is going to continue to grow and I could see a time when pro and college sports are equal in this town.”
In the 1960s at the peak of the civil rights movement, Atlanta tried to differentiate itself from other Southern cities by launching a national ad campaign with the slogan “a city too busy to hate,” suggesting it had moved on from its racially troubled past and was a city focused on business and opportunity. Whether it was really true at that time is a matter of debate, but Atlantans still hold onto the modern adaptation of that motto, which probably applies to sports as well.
Atlanta is too busy to invest a disproportionate amount of time and energy into this stuff, even when it comes to the biggest meltdown in sports history. Though the Falcons blowing a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl left an indelible scar on a local psyche that was already fragile after years of Braves playoff disappointments in the 1990s and failing to sniff an NBA title even with some terrific Hawks teams in the 1980s, there was no rioting or unrest or civic malaise. People were generally disappointed for a couple days and moved on, which seems a much healthier way to live.
“In some of those northeast cities, they live and die with it so much. Here it’s not so much like that,” said Steve Holman, a Boston native who has been the radio play-by-play voice of the Hawks since the mid-1980s. “A lot of it is that people are cooped up in the wintertime up there and have nothing else to do. Here, people are out playing tennis, playing golf, they have other things to do. When the teams win here, they love it, and it’s great, but if they don’t it’s not like in Boston where the talk shows are going crazy for three days in a row.”
That’s not to say people here aren’t passionate about sports.
The Braves’ new home at SunTrust Park has been a big success, with the team ranking 10th in MLB each of the last two years in percentage of seats sold.
The Hawks say they have a higher percentage of African-American ticket buyers than any team in the NBA, and their marketing strategy to target young professionals who live in the urban core rather than the suburbs has helped their crowds remain steady even through a rebuild (Atlanta is also consistently a top-five ratings market for national NBA broadcasts).
And then there’s Atlanta United, which has been a phenomenon unlike anything the MLS has seen, drawing regular crowds of 70,000-plus. Though the team has done plenty right on the field and in its community outreach, it also supports the transplant theory since MLS is the one league where new Atlantans probably didn’t already have a favorite team.
“Everybody could join in this together, and it’s not just one demographic or one ethnicity, it’s everybody at a soccer game, and that’s really what Atlanta is,” Durham said. “Atlanta got pigeonholed as a certain type of city but people that have moved here or lived here and moved away understand Atlanta isn’t just that. It’s 7.5 million people of everybody.”
Still, it’s going to take time for Atlanta to change its reputation. A smooth Super Bowl week would help. So would a couple championships. But no matter how many snarky columns people want to write about Atlanta’s sports history or empty seats they saw years ago, nobody here is going to apologize for what this city is or is becoming.
“I see a lot of cities with empty seats. It’s not just Atlanta, but for some reason, the national narrative seems to focus on us,” said Bob Rathbun, who has called NBA, WNBA, college and previously MLB games on television in the market since the 1990s. “I can’t tell you how many games at (Madison Square Garden) I’ve been to where the blue seats are empty. Nobody writes about empty seats in Detroit at Pistons games. We get picked on more than anyone else, but I think it’s a misnomer to say it’s not a good sports town.”