Atlanta United win the MLS. While there have been exceptional performances from players like Josef Martínez and manager Gerardo Martino, it’s been an astonishing achievement for a club that was only formed four years ago and just entered the United States’ major football tournament two years back. Such young clubs, and David Beckham’s Inter Miami are certainly looking to follow in Atlanta’s footsteps in about two years time, do have the advantage to create a football experience free from traditional habits and breathing a new way to consume football. But, since old habits die hard, the core of football will last; or will it?
Atlanta United: Crowd record for the newcomers
When Atlanta United beat the Portland Timbers for their maiden MLS triumph, they did so having generated an already established fan base to count on. Given that MLS final win ended only their second season in the competition it is rather surprising. In their very first season they also brought togehter the biggest crowd the MLS had ever seen in its 22-year history. 70.425 visitors saw a draw against Orlando City. And their general attendance isn’t bad either. They’ve had 53.000 visitors on average this season.
That is only made possible, some might say, as the club’s owner is no other than Arthur Blank, co-founder of The Home Depot and owner of prestigious NFL club Atlanta Falcons. Those two teams share a stadium of the most modern standard: the Mercedes-Benz-Stadium. That arena has a futuristic closeable roof, a 360-degree LED screen attached to it – the biggest in sports business with 63.000 (!) square feet – and is generally quite awesome.
It really merges a fantastic real life sports experience brilliantly with the demands of a digitalised fan culture. There are 2.000 TV screens around the whole venue plus a state-of-the-art audio system to make sure no fan misses anything. That goes for personal communication or Social Media connections as well, as there are also moren than 1.800 wireless access points. Fans can even use Apple Pay for purchases. All that made the stadium SportsTechies Most Innovative Venue 2017.
But it’s a big sponsorship paying for that. Mercedes Benz got the naming rights for the stadium for 27 years, another superlative. Although it’s not clear what amount of money they pay for that, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution refers to it as the biggest single marketing deal in Mercedes Benz’ history. So there is a lot of financial power behind that club, Atlanta United, and that seems to be inevitable if they’re in for the long term. Because football lives off its roots, yet is ruled by money. Both is true for Atlanta United.
Atlanta United culture: Fans’ favorites best of
The club from Georgia may have a few advantages when it comes to fan engagement. Sure, they had to generate them first of all and all the money behind that super venue will have helped. But there must be something the club is doing right apart from all the glitter. For one thing, they are playing pretty well despite not having the most star-studded squad. Another thing is, though, that the club is building its very own fan culture, which is a bit of a mashup of acclaimed aspects in experiencing football as entertainment. There is, for example, the Viking Clap that is performed twice during a home game as Helena Oliviero from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. Adapted from the Iceland national team that feature is poised to get the crowd going.
Furthermore, there are different supporters groups. Resurgence is one of them and they smash a piñata filled with glitter in the opponent’s colours or forms before each home game. That will keep people interested, another thing to do so is the giant Golden Spike, a reminiscence of Atlanta’s railroad roots, that is signed by fans and players and than hammered into the ground near the supporters’ section – by a local celebrity.
All of these rituals play their part in building an unorthodox, yet strong fellowship for the club and the team. Herein lies the advantage: Atlanta fans are mostly rather new to football (not American Football, probably) and have neither prejudices nor stubborn expectations of how football should be. So Atlanta United is a new and modern club creating a new brand of football following off the field.
On it, there is some very good football and its core values are not going to change for the time being. But maybe Atlanta United and the MLS – with a bit more impartiality – show the football industrie how a modern experience can be created. For the momentum of the MLS is certainly there: growth rates for social channels that other clubs can only dream of, and on the right channels as well. Atlanta have more Instagram followers than traditional clubs like FC Fulham or Werder Bremen, although they lack big fan numbers on Facebook. As Instagram is the place to go for brands, they may have taken a more lucrative path here. Anyway, Atlanta United are a modern and somehow experimental part of an evolving sports industry. Their success on and off the pitch has shown that you can produce new football experiences. Will it ever be the same as going to Anfield, attending the Clásico or “feasting your eyes“ on classic Italian Catenaccio? Maybe not. But who says it has to be then? Stadia like that Mercedes-Benz-Stadium are going to emerge, so we’ve got another thing coming, probably.