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!

How Atlanta Became the Host City for the 1996 Olympic Games: Part 2, Winning the IOC Nomination

399px-1996_Atlanta_Olympic_Games_Torch_(Replica)

With the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) nomination secured, Billy Payne, Andrew Young and the Georgia Amateur Athletic Foundation (GAAF) turned their attention to the international bid. In May of 1988, Payne learned his competition for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) bid:  Athens, Greece; Belgrade, Yugoslavia; Manchester, England; Melbourne, Australia; and Toronto, Canada.

Early in the international bid, Atlanta had two issues against them.  The first was that many Olympic officials felt it was too soon to award the Olympics to another American city since Los Angeles  hosted the Games in 1984.  The second issue was that the 1996 Games would be the centennial of the modern Games and many officials believed the natural host should be Athens.

Payne and his team quickly developed a plan to counteract these issues.  The plan centered on the diversity of the American population, the country’s regions and overall size, and the number of times the Games had been hosted on American soil—three (1904, 1932 and 1984) versus fourteen in Europe.  Also, Los Angeles was the only city in the world to bid on the 1984 Olympics and Payne argued that the IOC had not actually selected an American city for almost 60 years.

With the plan finalized, Payne reverted back to his personal touch strategy that worked so well in capturing the USOC bid.  Charles Battle and Robert Rearden Jr. began traveling to IOC members and international sports officials around the world to deliver personally Payne’s plan. Early visits were to IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, Ecuador, Canada, Malta, and Mexico.  With Young’s participation in Atlanta’s bid and his international reputation, doors were opened to the GAAF volunteers that may not have been without his involvement.

As Atlanta’s international bid process unfolded, the GAAF began to receive support from various sources.  Federal, state, and local government began to provide financial support.  The Atlanta Chamber of Commerce offered the full support of its Atlanta Sports Council group to host amateur athletic events to strengthen a weakness noted by the USOC.  Atlanta would host over 30 such amateur events by the time the IOC awarded the Games to the city.

A group of 20 Atlanta officials attended the Seoul Olympics in 1988 in order to meet additional IOC members and garner further information about hosting an Olympics.  Once again, Payne employed his personal touch strategy by converting a traditional Korean house into an Atlanta home complete with a staff and southern menu. The house entertained IOC members daily for lunch and intimate dinners with the goals of developing friendships and strengthening communication.

While in Seoul, Payne and Young gave their first official presentation to the IOC Executive Board.  Payne emphasized that Atlanta felt an obligation to bring the Games to the east coast of North America and near the Caribbean, which had never hosted the Olympics.  Young spoke about Atlanta’s abilities as a potential host city and stressed that the most essential reason that he wanted the Games in Atlanta was to inspire youth.  The Atlanta contingent left Seoul having spoken to 88 out of the 90 IOC members and obtaining valuable information necessary to prepare the official IOC Bid.

Samaranch agreed to visit Atlanta in February 1989 and before his visit the GAAF met to assess its organizational structure, goals and strategies.  This meeting prompted the formation of a 14-member Executive Board and a new name, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG).  Andrew Young became ACOG’s chairman; Billy Payne, the president and chief executive officer; Gerald Bartels, the president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, was named secretary; and Bob McCullough of Arthur Andersen Company took the title of treasurer.  An Advisory Council was also formed, representing a wide range of Georgians, to support the ACOG.  Not long after, the group announced its official Olympic theme, “Atlanta and the Olympics: Yes! Partners with the World!”

Samaranch’s visit to Atlanta went well and he praised Atlanta’s Olympic team for their work while speaking before the Georgia General Assembly.  He encouraged the ACOG to host as many IOC members as possible so that they could see first-hand Atlanta’s preparation for the Games.

As Samaranch flew back to Lausanne, the ACOG stepped up their efforts.  The group opened an office in midtown where they began the preparation of the Bid documents to the IOC that would be due in one year.  Through local sports experts, volunteer committees began to document how the city would handle the international requirements for each Olympic sport.

The Atlanta business community began to step up by offering free services to the ACOG and over 100,000 people expressed interest in volunteering for the Games even though the Games were still seven years away.  Atlantans began to embrace the Games in earnest.

Playing off the excitement, the ACOG began a public awareness campaign in July 1989. Billboards and banners sprang up all around the city.  With the international press in attendance, the ACOG implemented the Olympic Mile run during the annual July 4 Peachtree Road Race.  More than 40,000 people ran the in the mile run.

With Andrew Young’s words to the IOC Board in Seoul in mind, the ACOG focused on the city’s youth.  After the Road Race, the ACOG introduced the Olympic Day in the School (ODIS) Program.  The program offered curriculum guides to aid teachers with incorporating Olympic values into all subject areas.  The following spring the Georgia Olympic Day provided the opportunity for students from across Georgia to participate in academic and athletic competitions in the style of the Olympics.  Over the seven years of the program, more than one million students participated in the program.  ACOG members encouraged these students to write to IOC members detailing what the Olympics in Atlanta would mean to them.

In late August and early September of 1989, the ACOG unveiled their high-tech presentation tool at the IOC meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Developed with resources from Georgia Tech, the ACOG presented an interactive video that allowed IOC members to fly through three-dimensional areas of Atlanta with computer-generated models of existing and future venues.  This tool would later be credited as one of the reasons Atlanta secured the IOC nomination.  Also in San Juan, the ACOG presented a book to IOC members and the press that offered a description of Atlanta’s strengths, including details of each venue.  The book known as the XXVI Book (because the 1996 Games would be the 26th of the modern era) impressed the international contingent with its quality of design and information.  Payne and company began to produce a “wow” factor that other cities could not imitate.

After San Juan, the unprecedented number of 24 IOC members came to Atlanta to see what the ACOG was touting.  Atlanta volunteers ensured IOC members would not leave Atlanta without positive impressions.  The volunteers led the international delegates on facility tours, to dinners in private homes, to amateur sports competitions, to a cultural festival and to the 5K Run for the Bid. The brainchild of Payne, the 5k event began with IOC members riding an express MARTA train to the starting point.  Upon exiting from the train tunnel, 7,500 runners regaled the members with chants of “We want the Games.”  Most of the IOC members appeared emotionally touched by Atlanta’s enthusiasm for the Games.  The members gave the city high praise for its preparations to date and the overall enthusiasm of the city’s residents.

The ACOG and its volunteers continued to prepare the final Bid document and by February 1990 the completed Bid arrived in Lausanne.  The Bid came in five volumes all describing Atlanta as a modern city with lofty goals and expectations.  The high quality design and expert writing also told the story of the history, culture and pride of the South.  Volume I offered greetings from famous Georgians and Americans.  Volume II discussed Atlanta’s and the South’s history, details of the ACOG’s Cultural Olympiad plans, and a proposed torch relay involving all host cities of the modern Games.  In Volume III, detailed answers were given to the IOC’s requisite 19 questions, including the issues of facilities, financing and security.  Volume IV provided details of all of the sports venues and Volume V offered the ACOG’s plans for handling the media.

The ACOG’s Bid announced $1 billion would be spent on the preparation for and management of the Games, including $418 million of construction.  The construction tab would include an 85,000 seat stadium for athletics, a natatorium, a water polo stadium, a cycling venue, a shooting range and a marina in Savannah.  Also, dormitories for the athletes would be built at a cost of $60 million. The Bid also stated that revenue sources would include broadcast television rights fees, corporate sponsorships (think Coca-Cola), ticket sales, Olympic coins and other merchandise sales.  Additionally, the Bid stipulated that no taxpayer funding would be needed.

Over the next three months, the ACOG maintained it efforts to impress the international group of decision makers.  The group hosted the official site inspection visits by the IOC Study and Evaluation Commission, the Association of International Olympic Federations, and the Association of National Olympic Committees.  The ACOG shrewdly invited IOC members to Atlanta during the spring when the city’s natural beauty comes alive.

As summer approached, the ACOG could boast that Atlanta had now hosted scores of international amateur sports competitions over a two-year period, and gained the support and confidence of all levels of government and the city’s business leaders.  The city now had the infrastructure to handle the Games and the needed venues were well on their way to completion.  The IOC’s final decision would come in September, and the ACOG could only wonder if the members had done enough to gain the nomination. A total of 68 IOC members had visited the city and ACOG members had visited 85 IOC delegates in their countries.  What more could the ACOG do?

In mid-September, 1990, over 300 Atlantans and Georgians traveled to Tokyo for the ACOG’s final presentation and the IOC’s decision.  The group included 58 students, ranging in age from 11 to 18, called the Atlanta Dream Team.  Atlanta was the first of the six cities to present.  The hour long presentation included a film and original song, “The World Has One Dream,” and talks from Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, Governor Joe Frank Harris, Andrew Young, and Billy Payne.  The consistent message was that Atlanta wanted and was ready to host the Centennial Olympic Games.

At the conclusion of the presentations, the IOC members cast their initial ballot.  Belgrade dropped out of the running after the first ballot, Manchester fell out of the running on the second ballot, Melbourne went home after the third, and Toronto failed to make the cut after the fourth.  That left Athens and Atlanta, and of course, Atlanta won the nomination after the fifth ballot.

Payne, Young and the GAAF/ACOG team of volunteers had achieved their goal:  obtaining the 1996 Olympics for Atlanta.  Payne’s personal touch strategy combined with Young’s influence and the meticulous attention to detail by GAAF/ACOG members could not be overcome by the other cities hoping to host the Games.  The Georgia Tech presentation technology and support from Atlantans from all walks of  life provided the icing on the proverbial cake.  Payne’s dream became a reality and the provincial town that embodied the New South would earn the right to sit in the pantheon of international cities.