Is Atlanta a Bad Sports Town?

              Courtesy of Daniel Mayer

For years, members of the national media have accused Atlanta of being a bad sports town.  Their definition seems strictly based on professional sports (the four major sports: football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey) and the lack of sell outs or near sell outs for Falcons, Braves and Hawks games.  These media naysayers also love to point out that Atlanta has lost two National Hockey League franchises.  Their definition of a sports town does not include college sports, sports participation per capita, or hosting sports events.  However, my definition does.  This article will attempt to define Atlanta as a sports town.  I will use facts as much as possible to support my statements but sometimes my points will be based on observations developed as a 45+ year Atlanta resident and sports fan.  Let’s examine Atlanta as a sports town using the variables of sports participation, hosting sports events, college sports, and professional sports.

City sports participation per capita must be one variable to consider.  Actual numbers are unavailable, but in Atlanta, people play and watch sports from the earliest days they can walk until well into their twilight years.  Soccer, baseball, softball, karate, football, basketball, wrestling, swimming, running, tennis, golf, lacrosse, ice hockey and horseback riding are all examples of sports offered in the Atlanta metro area at six years of age or younger. This is by no means an exhaustive list. The point is Atlantans become involved in sports at an early age, especially outdoor sports because of the temperate weather.  Atlanta boys and girls continue to participate in sports well into adulthood.  For example, the Atlanta area, according to golfadviser.com, lists well over 100 golf courses that offer year-round golf to players of all skill levels.  For tennis lovers, the United States Tennis Association Atlanta Chapter has the largest number of adult and junior team tennis programs in the country.  The Atlanta Track Club has a membership of over 27,000 and hosts more than 30 events a year.

You can drive or walk anywhere in the metro area and see people of all ages participating in a sport they love. While sports per capita participation must be one variable of a sports town’s measure, others must be considered.

Hosting sporting events has long been a point of pride for Atlantans.  The city hosted the 1996 summer Olympic Games.  Only Los Angeles and St. Louis can make that distinction among American cities.  Atlanta has also hosted two Super Bowls (one more in 2019), four National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Basketball Final Fours (another in 2020), 23 Southeastern Conference football championship games (current contract runs through 2026), 49 Peach Bowls (next year’s Peach Bowl will host the College Football Playoff title game), 47 Peachtree Road Races (considered the largest 10-kilometer race in the world), and 16 Tour Championships (the Professional Golf Association’s end of season tournament).  Additionally, the city has hosted two Major League Baseball All-Star games, one National Hockey League All-Star game, and two National Basketball Association All-Star games.  Furthermore, the city has hosted numerous other professional and amateur golf events, professional car races, international soccer matches, professional tennis tournaments, and national/international amateur Olympic sports tournaments.  Few cities in the world can match Atlanta’s resume when it comes to hosting sports events.

As for college sports, this has always been a passion for Atlantans, especially college football.  Until the mid-1960s, the city had no professional sports, only college sports.  Atlanta residents flock to games all over the Southeast on autumn Saturdays:  to Athens for University of Georgia games, Auburn for Auburn University games, Knoxville for University of Tennessee games, Columbia for University of South Carolina games, Clemson for Clemson University games, Tuscaloosa for University of Alabama games and so on. Sell outs are the norm.

Fans often pay thousands of dollars just for the right to buy season tickets, and weddings are rarely scheduled in the fall for fear that no one would attend.  College football is a religion in the South and Atlanta is in the thick of it all.  Chick-fil-A sponsors at least one game per year in Atlanta to kick off the season, the city hosts the aforementioned SEC Championship games, and the Peach Bowl is part of the College Football Playoff rotation.  Furthermore, the College Football Hall of Fame resides in Atlanta.  Arguably, no city in the United States has the passion for college football that Atlanta does.

While college football reigns supreme over other college sports, Atlantans support basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis, golf, lacrosse, track and field, gymnastics and just about any sport associated with their alma mater.  Going back to their college for a sports event has been a staple of Atlantans since the early 20th century, which leads to the final variable associated with the definition of a sports town—professional sports.

Professional sports came to Atlanta with the Falcons and the Braves in 1966, the Hawks in 1968, the Flames in 1972 and the Thrashers in 1999.  The combined seasons for the five teams amount to around 170.  At this point (the Falcons may bring home a title with a win in Super LI), the teams have won one championship—the 1995 Braves.  A lack of championships will not endear fans to a team, in my humble opinion.  Professional sports in cities in the Northeast and Midwest have fans that live and die with their teams.  These teams have been around much longer than Atlanta teams and have won championships.  Again, championships produce diehard fans.  The major exception to that would be the Chicago Cubs.  Their fans supported them even though the Cubs had not won a title in over a hundred years.  Of course, the Cubs finally won a title this past season.  However, the general rule is that championships create a loyal fan base.

The national media chastises Atlanta fans for not supporting the local teams.  They point to a lack of sell outs for the Falcons, Hawks and Braves, even when the teams are having winning seasons.  Atlanta fans are fickle when it comes to the pro teams.  I argue that when the teams are winning the fans turn out to support them.  The 2016 Falcons averaged about 70,000 per game, around 98% capacity.  Yet, when the Falcons are having losing seasons, attendance drops off.  That is the same for the Hawks and the Braves.  When the teams are having winning seasons and they look like they will make the playoffs, fans will come to the games.  If not, the fans will choose to spend their entertainment money elsewhere.

Braves fans, in particular, have been skewered in the media.  The Braves won 14 division titles but only one World Series, the last World Series appearance came in 1999.  Fans came out to the ballpark in droves during the 1990s but would not sell out playoff games in the Wild Card or Division rounds as the seasons progressed.  The fans were waiting to see if the Braves reached the league championship series.  Frankly, Braves fans were spoiled.  They reached the playoffs every year baseball was played from 1991 to 2005.  This same phenomenon happened in New York with Yankees fans in the 1950s.  Even though the playoffs consisted of just the World Series back then, Yankee Stadium did not sellout for every game.  The Yankees participated in seven World Series in the 1950s.  So boredom with winning does exist.

The Braves have not won a playoff series since 2001, and the fans have not bought every ticket to every playoff game since then.  My guess though is that with the new stadium, SunTrust Park, opening in a few months and a team that will compete for a playoff spot, the fans will return.

To be honest, Atlanta sports fans do not support the pro teams as in other cities.  Part of that may be the transient nature of the city.  People move to Atlanta from all over the country and bring their allegiances to other teams with them.  Many will move on from Atlanta and the process will start over again.  It also cannot be overstated that winning titles enhances the loyalty of the fan base and Atlanta has but one.

As for the Flames and Thrashers, the Flames probably came to Atlanta a bit early.  The 1970s did not witness the great influx of people from other areas of the country that the 1990s did.  Ice hockey was not a sport southerners understood or participated in with significant numbers as they did with sports such as football and baseball. With the economic woes of the time, Flames owner Tom Cousins had little choice but to sell the team.

However, the Thrashers came to Atlanta when the city had residents originally from hockey towns and youth hockey was thriving.  The problem was the ownership group.  The Atlanta Spirit group bought the Hawks and Thrashers as a package deal from Ted Turner.  The group had very little interest in hockey and refused to put a competitive team on the ice.  Atlanta hockey fans became disinterested with a perpetually losing team and would not support it.  The Spirit group finally sold it to a consortium from Winnipeg.  I firmly believe that if the Thrashers had owners who cared about hockey, the team would still be here today.

When you take into consideration the aforementioned variables, Atlanta is a great sports town.  Atlanta excels in sports participation, hosting sports events and college sports.  The city does not score as high on the professional sports variable, but a few championships would enhance the marks.

Frankly, who cares what the national media think?  Cheers Atlanta!

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