Atlanta United Proves Soccer Can Be As Successful As The Big 4
It’s no secret that soccer isn’t as popular in the United States as it is pretty much anywhere else in the world. A ton of ink has been spilled as to the reasons why: everything from the pace of the game to low scoring and a terrible clock system to the fact that we already have a sport called football here. But the perception of it being less popular in America may simply be one of relativity — after all, with the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL all hogging the limelight, being in fifth place isn’t half bad.
In fact, there are more soccer fans in the United States than in nearly every other country in the world. While more Americans follow American football and baseball than they do soccer, the fact is that there are still millions of fans nationwide who faithfully follow both FIFA internationally and the MLS domestically.
The demographics of the nation play a large role in the overall numbers as well. Millions of fans in the US translates to a smaller percentage of the population as a whole thanks to our large population–we are the third most populous nation in the world by a large margin. Soccer also carries the perception of being the sport of globalists, and without getting into the politics of the matter, it’s safe to say a significant portion of Americans are wary of anything carrying that label.
While more Americans follow American football and baseball than they do soccer, the fact is that there are still millions of fans nationwide who faithfully follow both FIFA internationally and the MLS domestically
Younger people are more interested in soccer than the older generation, however. With the exception of basketball, it is the most accessible sport for people regardless of income. All you need is a ball. Still, ratings and attendance are dwarfed by those of the Big 4 sports in most markets, though that is starting to change in some places.
The Atlanta United, for example, have been drawing numbers more in line with what you might expect from a MLB or even an NFL game–averaging a respectable 46,000 fans in attendance per game this season. In fact, that attendance average is higher than any of the Big 4 sports leagues except the NFL itself. So what is the secret to the success in the dirty south and how can other clubs learn from the example?
First, we must discuss that which can’t be duplicated. The ownership had a unique commitment to the sport, and it was led by Arthur Blank. Blank, for those who don’t know, is also the owner of the Atlanta Falcons and was one of the founders of Home Depot. Needless to say, dude has pretty much bottomless pockets, and when the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers bailed on the city Blank doubled down on his bet that Hotlanta could support another sport. Few other cities have billionaires with the wherewithal and the commitment to do it up this way, and it took him nearly 10 years to finally get the United rolling, but earlier this year they started play and the fans came in droves.
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Even if another Arthur Blank were to take over one of the other 22 clubs in the league, or even start another expansion team like Blank did, they would need to learn heavily from his model. Slick marketing and a heavy push toward making games accessible both in person and deals with Fox Sports and even over the air on the local CW station, WUPA, have also helped to gin up support. After all, it’s much easier to draw fans with high visibility.
The front office was also carefully selected and a drive to put a quality team on the field from day one was a high priority. High-level players were pursued relentlessly, and the team sits in third place at the time of this writing (only three points out of second). Ticket prices also start out at an extremely inexpensive $10, which is much lower than all but the cheapest of MLB games. They even are starting to draw a significant hater population, always a sign that a team has made it to the big leagues.
While soccer may never have the draw of the NFL (current downturn for political reasons notwithstanding), the Atlanta United have shown that it can certainly keep pace with, and even beat, the other three sports when it comes to attendance. And in the case of Atlanta, it is showing that it can completely fill the void when an existing franchise from another sport abandons its city and its fans. Whether other cities are willing to follow this example remains to be seen, but with the success down south, it would be a perfect opportunity to try.