The Story of the Atlanta Flames as Told by Owner Thomas G. Cousins ©, 2018, Jim Weathersby, All Rights Reserved

Photo Courtesy of Rick Dikeman

Atlanta icon Tom Cousins owned the National Hockey League’s Atlanta Flames from 1971 to 1980, brought the National Basketball Association’s Hawks from St. Louis in 1968, and purchased the North American Soccer League’s Atlanta Chiefs from the Atlanta Braves in 1973. He also purchased and restored the East Lake Golf Club in 1995.  However, Mr. Cousins will always be remembered for his work in Atlanta outside of sports.

Through his company, Cousins Properties Incorporated, Mr. Cousins spent over four decades developing such Atlanta landmarks as the CNN Center, the 191 Peachtree Tower, the Bank of America Plaza, and the Wildwood Office Park in Cobb County.  His company also built the now-defunct Omni Coliseum for the Hawks and Flames.

Numerous philanthropic projects in Atlanta over the years received funds from Mr. Cousins, including those associated with the arts, education and religious organizations.  The Association of Fundraising Professionals, Greater Atlanta Chapter, named him 2015 Philanthropist of the Year.

Mr. Cousins graciously agreed to speak with me on the topic of his time as owner of the Flames.  Following is the transcription of that interview. Questions and answers have been edited or paraphrased for brevity and clarity.

 

Q:        How did the idea first surface to obtain a National Hockey League team?

A:        Well, my partners, at the time and I had a coliseum (the Omni) and the Decks (a 1,000 car, two-level deck near the Omni).  I bought the Hawks from the St. Louis owners in 1968, moved them to Atlanta and they played at Georgia Tech.  When the Omni was completed in 1972, I moved the Hawks into it.

Q:        How did the hockey team materialize?

A:        At the time (early 1970s), there were 14 hockey teams in the National Hockey League (NHL) and the League wanted to expand to two more.  We got an expansion team along with New York (the Islanders).  I think the League was worried about the World Hockey Association (WHA) and we took advantage of that.  The reason I wanted a team was because of the coliseum.  There were other cities that wanted a franchise but the NHL chose us.  I think they saw the opportunity to increase revenue and interest in the sport by adding a team in the Southeast.  I believe we paid $6.5 million for the team.

Q.        Did you think Atlanta was ready to support an ice hockey team?

A:        We thought that Atlanta was ready to support an NHL team, and it would have if the players’ salaries had stayed where they were.  It never occurred to us that that would be a problem.  We were profitable the first year or two but that was before the WHA came into being and player contracts went through the roof.

Q.     How did the name “Flames” come about?

A.      We had a contest to name the team.  It was a public contest. The name “Flames” was picked.

Q.      How did you choose the people to run the team?

A.       Cliff Fletcher was recommended by a consultant (Bill Putnam) for the General Manager position.  Cliff recommended Boom Boom (Bernie Geoffrion) to be the coach.  (Geoffrion) had been a great player for Montreal and New York.

Q.      How involved were you with the team as an owner?

A.    I didn’t plan to be involved with the Flames.  I wanted an arena.  Ivan Allen Jr. was the Atlanta mayor at the time and I wanted the city to build the arena.  However, I wound up having to build it and pay for it.  Allen and his people indicated they would build the arena if I got a basketball team to come to town, and the arena would be built where I wanted it (the site where the Omni stood).  So I started pursuing a team and Allen agreed to build an arena only after a team was in town.

Georgia Tech, at the time, had this little field house that had 5,400 seats.  St. Louis Hawks owner Ben Kerner, one of the original owners in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the NHL, had many chips to call on and he got the other NBA owners to approve the sale of the Hawks to me and to approve the move to Atlanta and Georgia Tech based on a letter from the city stating that if the Hawks moved to Atlanta the city would immediately build an arena.

However, Allen then decided to build the arena next to the Civic Center, which was not where I wanted it.  I wanted it over there at the air rights (In 1966, attorney Bob Troutman owned the air rights over the Western and Atlantic Railroad yard.  He approached Cousins about an inexpensive lease of the air rights for a commercial development.  In order for Cousins to receive a low cost 80-year lease on the air rights he would have to commit to a $5 million commercial property by the end of the year.  Cousins agreed to build the parking garage (the Decks) with future plans for a 40-story office building on top.  Because few people would park in the Decks, Cousins built the Omni–broke ground in 1971 and completed in 1972–in hopes of increasing traffic to the area.  The Hawks and Flames were part of that plan.).

When Allen told me his plans for the arena, I became angry and told him that I would move the Hawks back to St. Louis or somewhere else before I would allow the team to play in an arena next to the Civic Center.  He got mad at me. We had a handshake agreement (to build the arena over the air rights) and he welshed (Cousins built the Omni and the infrastructure around it with the help of city bonds from Mayor Sam Massell’s administration, which succeeded Allen’s in 1970).

Q.        Thinking back on the operations of the team under your ownership, how did you feel about the revenue generated from the Omni, your marketing efforts, ticket sales, parking, television and radio?

A.        Well, we had a great advertising agency, McDonald & Little, and big billboards.  The “Ice Age” campaign was great.  We sold a lot of tickets in those early years.  As for the Omni, the Flames were a great tenant and we made profits in the early years.  We started losing money because of that competing league (WHA). Unfortunately, we only had three luxury suites in the Omni.  That was inadequate.  I would certainly have liked to have had more, but that was the way it (the Omni) was built.

We made money on parking, concessions and ticket sales those early years.  Everything fell off in the later years.  We tried to raise ticket prices when player salaries went up, but sales fell off and we went back to the original ticket prices.  Those prices weren’t adequate to cover the cost of the operations.

We had an okay radio deal with WSB but our television revenue was inadequate.  We didn’t have near what other (NHL) cities had because ice and skating in the Southeast…that did not make for a good television show.  We had a deal with Ted Turner’s station, but I don’t remember getting anything (revenue) from television for the Flames.

Q.         Attendance was good for the first three years of operation then it declined.  Why?

A.          The team really wasn’t that good.  People were disappointed in the performance and the economy was off a little bit.  That impacted it.

Q.         The team made the playoffs six out of its eight years in Atlanta but never won a playoff series.  

A.          We needed more outstanding players.  Being an expansion team, we didn’t get very good players from the other teams.  We just needed more time.

Q.          Let’s talk about what forced you to sell the Flames.  In the mid to late 1970s the economy was down.  You mentioned the poor economy, falling attendance and operations losses as problems during this period.  Are these the reasons that led to your thoughts of selling the team?

A.          Yes.  We were losing money.  I liked the team.  I liked the players.  They were raised in Canada and were fine gentlemen.  I would have continued to own the team after the move to Calgary but Canada had a law at the time called FIRA (Foreign Investment Review Act) that said that any business doing business in Canada had to be majority owned by Canadians—had to be at least 51 percent.  Well, I wasn’t going to have a bunch of partners—majority partners—in such a thing.  That’s why I decided to sell it.

Q.         Ted Turner bought the Hawks in 1977.  Did he ask you about buying the Flames as well?

A.          I offered to give them to him.  I also offered them to Delta (Airlines) and Coca-Cola, who were advertisers for me.  They wouldn’t have them (the Flames).  Nobody wanted them.  The reason was that the Flames were losing money.  They (Turner, Delta and Coca-Cola) didn’t think they could make any money off the Flames.  Turner wouldn’t take the gift because it wasn’t a good television sport.

Q.         Turner was instrumental in securing the Thrashers, Atlanta’s second NHL expansion team.

A.         Right.  I needled him at the time because he paid, I think, $78 million for the Thrashers.  I said, “I tried to give you the Flames.” Turner said, ‘Oh gosh. I forgot that.’   I said, “Well, don’t feel too bad.  You probably would have lost millions by now if you had owned the Flames.”  He felt kind of relieved after I said that.

Q.         A story came out in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 18, 2015 about Dan Bouchard, the former goalie with the Flames.  In that story, Bouchard states that some of the other NHL owners were skimming from the players’ pension fund and those owners were putting pressure on you to sell the Flames because they feared you would report their activity to the authorities.  Is this true?

A.         I don’t know about that.  Certainly, I wouldn’t have participated in that.  I don’t remember that.  I think that’s all imagination.

Q.        You sold the team in 1980.  Was there an opportunity to sell the team sooner?  

A.        We were making money at first, but then the arena, the Hawks and Flames all began to lose money.  My partners wanted to shut it down and were thinking about defaulting on the city bonds that we used for construction, which I was always concerned about protecting because by reputation I was involved in it.  I didn’t want to be a part of any kind of failure.  So, I let the other partners out of the ownership deal and took over everything myself, losses at that point.  The league (NHL) had already taken over a team or two that were going to declare bankruptcy.  I made a deal with the league.

Q.        So your partners wanted to default on the bonds and you did not because you didn’t want to damage your reputation.

A.        Right. I took over their interest.  They were going to bankrupt the team, give it up. So, I took it over and made a commitment to the league.  It took a unanimous vote (from NHL officials) to not only approve a new expansion but to approve a transfer.  And you would never get a unanimous vote on whether it was Saturday or not.  But I made a deal with them (in 1978) that I would try to operate for two more years and if we couldn’t make it (the franchise) break even then I was free to move it to some other city.  So after two years of four or five million dollars more in losses, I was ready to move the team out.  That’s the only reason I would sell it.  As I said, I loved it.  I would have moved it and owned it in Calgary if I could have.

Q.         Once it was clear that you were going to sell the team, did anyone or any group, like the city, step forward and offer to help you financially in order to keep the team in Atlanta?

A.           No.  Nobody would.  I didn’t ask them (the city) for help.  As I said, I offered to give it to Turner, Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola to keep it in Atlanta.  No one thought the Flames could be profitable.  No way to turn it around, to keep it from losing money.  Player salaries kept rising because of the competition from the other league (WHA).

Q.         I read where actor Glenn Ford made an offer for the team.

A.         That was a sham.  He never made an offer.  The press announced it and made something of it, but it never was.  The joke was played on him by some of his friends.

Q.         You struck a deal with Canadian businessman Nelson Skalbania to relocate the team to Calgary.  Was the deal for just the Flames or was the Omni or any of your other real estate holdings involved?

A.          He bought the Flames only. He offered to pay 16 million in Canadian dollars, but I told him I wanted 16 million in US dollars because I knew Skalbania would pay that and more. He agreed to $16 million US.

Q.        What kind of feedback were you receiving when you were going through the process of selling the team?  

A.         I think we had some negative press.  Nobody wants to lose a sports team, whether they were supporting it or not.

Q.        Any kind of feedback after the sale was final?

A.         Not really.  I guess there wasn’t much anyone could say.  I offered to give it away if they would agree to keep it in Atlanta.  My oldest daughter married one of the players, a great guy named Brad Marsh.  As much for that than any other reason I wanted to keep the Flames in Atlanta.  I respected the players.  Several of them moved to or kept their homes in Atlanta–Tom Lysiak and Willi Plett. Of course, Dan Bouchard. Tim Ecclestone.

Q.        Do you have any regrets associated with the Flames?

A.        I would say none really.  Like I said, I liked the players and I liked the game and I would have been happy to have owned them in Canada. But they wouldn’t let me do it because of that law (FIRA).

Q.        Would you have done anything differently?

A.        You know, the circumstances at the time…that was the best thing that I could do.

Q.        What do you think about the Thrashers’ situation?  

A.         The group (Atlanta Spirit Group) that he (Ted Turner) sold them to was a bunch of sports nuts, but they were lousy managers.

Q.        Both the Flames and Thrashers left for Canada. Were the factors that led to the moves similar or different in your opinion?  

A.        Completely different.

Q.        Atlanta grew dramatically between the early 1970s and 2000.  It became much more of an international city in the 1990s.  Do you think that if the Thrashers had better owners the franchise would have survived in Atlanta?

A.         Yes. I think they could have.

Q.        Will Atlanta ever get another NHL team?

A.         That’s a good question.  Your guess is as good as mine.  We have a lot of people who have moved here from traditional hockey areas and more and more are coming.  So maybe somewhere in the distant future the city will get another team.

 

 

 

Atlanta Professional Soccer: Who Knew?

Sports historians date a form of the game of soccer, or football as the rest of the world calls it, to China about 2,000 years ago.  The first recorded sighting of the game in Atlanta came in 1912 when amateur players gathered at Piedmont Park to play.  Leagues began to form in the 1920s and 1930s and Emory University started the first collegiate program in 1958. The game remained secondary to other sports until 1966.  During that year the World Cup in England sparked worldwide interest in soccer and professional sports finally came to Atlanta with the inaugural seasons of the Braves and Falcons.  In fact, Braves Vice President Dick Cecil led the charge to bring a team to Atlanta Stadium because of the hope of additional revenue that the game could produce.   Cecil, with the blessing of other Braves owners, purchased a team to begin play in 1967 during the initial season of the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL). The seeds of professional soccer in Atlanta were planted at this point.

One of Cecil’s first hires proved to be a home run when Phil Woosnam took over as general manager and coach.  Woosnam had played the game at the highest levels with English powers West Ham and Aston Villa.  With that pedigree, Woosnam knew the type of athlete he wanted in Atlanta and with the help and resources of Cecil, the two scoured Europe, Africa and the Caribbean to sign players for the new team, which took the name “Chiefs” because of its affiliation with the Braves.  After player tryouts at Emory, the Chiefs’ training facility, Woosnam settled on the final roster for the season.  The Chiefs finished with a 9-10-12 record and finished fourth in the East Division.  Attendance for the first year was almost 7,000 a game.  After the 1967 season the NPSL merged with the United Soccer Association to form the North American Soccer League (NASL).

Arguably, the pinnacle of professional soccer in Atlanta came in 1968.  The Chiefs began play in March and battled into September, finishing the regular season with an 18-6-7 record. The club then dispatched Cleveland and San Diego in the playoffs to claim the NASL championship. Yes, the Chiefs won the city’s first professional sports championship.

However, three brushes with international royalty may have been more exciting than the league championship.  First, the English Premier League champion Manchester City came to Atlanta Stadium in May.  Before more than 23,000 fans, the Chiefs shocked Manchester City and the world by winning 3-2.  Angry and embarrassed, Manchester players and management demanded a rematch.  A month later, the two teams met again before almost 26,000 patrons.  Proving the first outcome was no fluke, the Chiefs beat the lordly English team once again, 2-1.  All the English players could offer as an excuse after their second defeat was the Atlanta heat.

Emboldened by their European conquests, the Chiefs convinced the Santos Football Club of Brazil to play a match at the end of August.  Santos had a young star on the team by the name of Pele.  Before almost 27,000 delirious soccer nuts, Pele and Santos put on a show.  Behind the superstar’s three goals, Santos brought the Chiefs back to earth with a resounding 6-2 thrashing of the home team.  Still, the 1968 Chiefs finished 2 and 1 in international contests and won their league championship.  Unfortunately, the club could not sustain the momentum.

The Chiefs played before modest crowds of 3,000 to 5,000 fans from 1969 through 1972 and could not secure another championship.  At the end of the ’72season, Tom Cousins and the Hawks’ ownership bought the team. The Chiefs became the Atlanta Apollos and played at Bobby Dodd Stadium on the Georgia Tech campus for the 1973 season.  After one season, the franchise folded.  Yet, the Chiefs would re-emerge behind Ted Turner.

Turner purchased the Atlanta Braves in 1976 and Dick Cecil remained with the organization.  NASL began a comeback in the late 1970s when the New York Cosmos lured such international stars as Pele to compete for the team.  Turner and Cecil purchased NASL’s Colorado Caribous in August 1978 and the new team, renamed the Chiefs, began play in Atlanta Stadium during the 1979 season.  The team struggled on the field and with attendance through 1981, when the franchise folded.  The Chiefs also participated in NASL’s winter indoor league during the 1979-80 and 1980-81 seasons in the Omni.  Attendance for the indoor games was better than the league average but the combined revenue for the indoor and outdoor seasons could not save the team.

Professional soccer in Atlanta witnessed an array of teams dribble in and out of the city over the next 35 years.  The Georgia Generals played one season in 1982 before folding.  Seven years later, the Atlanta Attack played in an indoor league from 1989-1991 before moving to Kansas City.  From 1991-1996, the Atlanta Magic played indoors with the United States Indoor Soccer League and won three championships.  The team also participated three seasons in the league’s outdoor version. Keeping with Atlanta soccer tradition, the Magic folded after the 1995-96 indoor season.

The Atlanta Ruckus began play in the outdoor American Professional Soccer League (APSL) in 1995.  The APSL renamed itself the A-League in 1996 and the league took over operations of the Ruckus following that season.  In 1998, the team found new owners, who changed the team name to the Silverbacks in honor of Willie B., a silverback gorilla at the Atlanta Zoo.

The Silverbacks continued to play in the United Soccer League before moving to the new North American Soccer League for the 2010 season.  The team folded in 2016 but re-emerged as an entrant in the National Premier Soccer League for the 2017 season.

Women’s professional soccer waltzed into Atlanta in the form of the Atlanta Beat. They played in the Women’s United Soccer Association from 2001-03, before the league folded and again in the Women’s Professional Soccer league from 2009-11, before that league folded.

Even with professional teams coming and going, Atlanta has demonstrated a passion for soccer.  Atlanta boasts a diverse population of over 6.5 million people, many of whom are passionate about the game.  When soccer matches involving international teams came to the Georgia Dome in recent years, fans packed the building.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank realized the passion for soccer in Atlanta and purchased a Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise for the city in 2014.  In its inaugural season in 2017, Atlanta United FC leads North America’s highest ranked professional league in attendance.

Will the passion for Atlanta United continue as the seasons accumulate or will the franchise fade away into oblivion like so many of its Atlanta predecessors?  As Dick Cecil stated in 2013, “Atlanta is a big-event town.  They like the big event, they like to see winners…It (Atlanta United) will be successful at first. But you have to work it (to maintain the market share).”

From its auspicious start in 1968 with the Chiefs through the Dark Ages of the 1970s-2000s to the Renaissance with Atlanta United, professional soccer in Atlanta has survived.  The bet here is that professional soccer will thrive and flourish in this diverse city for years to come.  A-T-L!  A-T-L! A-T-L!

 

 

1995 Atlanta Braves: World Series Game 6

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The Braves had Friday, October 27, off before facing the Indians in Game 6 the next day.  Instead of a quiet off day preparing for Game 6, the Braves players and management faced a firestorm ignited by David Justice.  While waiting to take batting practice, Justice told reporters that Atlanta’s fans were not very passionate and would probably boo the team if it trailed Cleveland the next night.  He exacerbated the situation when he suggested that other Braves players felt the same way and that they were playing the Series for themselves, not the Braves fans.  With this information in the Saturday Atlanta Journal-Constitution, many Braves fans came to Game 6 at Atlanta-Fulton Stadium ready to reply in some fashion to Justice’s comments.

Justice’s comments were not foremost in Tom Glavine’s, the Game 6 starting pitcher, thoughts.  As he rode with Greg Maddux back to their North Atlanta subdivision after Friday’s work out, the topic of conversation focused on the game.  Glavine recounted Leo Mazzone’s remarks from Steve Avery that the Indians could not hit his change-up and never made adjustments in Game 4.  Glavine asked Maddux what adjustment the Indians made against him in Game 5.  Maddux told Glavine that the Indians had not made any adjustments and the reason the Indians won the game was because he could not consistently locate his pitches.  Maddux told Glavine not to change anything and that he would beat the Indians.  Maddux added that “the guy who should be the winning pitcher when the Atlanta Braves win the championship will be out there.” (Glavine, 1996, p. 11) Glavine stated that those comments afforded him a large dose of confidence.

On game day, Glavine arrived at the stadium around 2:30 and began to dress at his locker.  Being a bit superstitious Glavine had several items in his locker that had not moved since he put them there in 1991—a Bart Simpson doll (Glavine enjoys his humor), a four-leaf clover pressed in waxed paper, and a trophy (he always liked the look of trophies). According to Glavine, his other superstitions included chewing a piece of Bazooka sugarless bubble gum every time he pitched (he also kept an extra piece in his back left-hand pocket) and never stepping on the foul lines when taking the field.

As the clock moved closer to game time, the Braves confidently warmed up on the field. Glavine claimed that his throwing session in the bullpen before the game was nothing special and had no idea how effective his pitches would be during the game.  Mazzone told him that his pitches looked good, but that did not satisfy Glavine.  Glavine remembered prior bullpen sessions when he thought they went terribly but he pitched shutouts and other sessions when he thought he was primed for a great game only to be hit unmercifully.  He was certain of one thing:  this bullpen session was better than Game 2’s session.

Glavine took the mound and began his pregame ritual of re-adjusting the dirt to find his comfort spot for his plant foot.  While working the mound, he looked up in the stands and sensed the crowd’s excitement.  Glavine quickly mused that Justice’s comments may have indeed had an effect on the fans’ collective level of passion.  As he toed the rubber for the first pitch, he told himself to establish a good rhythm and get out of the first inning, something that had been a problem for him in his career.  Glavine began almost immediately to locate his change-up and induced Kenny Lofton to fly out to right field.  With the pesky Lofton off the bases, Glavine relaxed and began to settle in.  He proceeded to strike out Omar Vizquel and got Carlos Baerga to hit an easy ground ball to him that would end the inning.  Glavine had not only achieved his goal of getting through the first inning unscathed but looked masterful in doing so.  The Indians were in trouble.

After the first two innings, the Cleveland hitters began to move up in the batter’s box and on top of home plate.  Glavine mentioned this to Mazzone and suggested that he should start pitching inside to the hitters.  Mazzone countered.  The veteran pitching coach told Glavine that when the hitter moves up in the box or on top of the plate that does not change his vision.  He said to Glavine that he could pitch inside or that he could pitch farther and farther off of the plate to see if the hitters would continue to adjust to that.  Mazzone reasoned that if Glavine threw the ball six to eight inches off the plate and the hitters made solid contact then Glavine would have to pitch inside to keep the down and away pitch as a viable option.

Glavine decided to make pitches farther and farther outside.  The Cleveland hitters adjusted accordingly but still couldn’t hit Glavine.  The majority of the hitters could only get the end of the bat on the ball, which resulted in easy outs.  Mazzone counted a dozen times that Glavine went inside during the course of the game.  Glavine’s ability to change speeds with his pitches and locate them where he wanted made him almost unhittable.  After walking into the dugout after an inning in the middle of the game Glavine had this outburst, “Will somebody please score a damned run?  Because they’re not.” (Freeman 2003, p. 79).  Through five innings, the Indians did not have a hit.

The Braves had good opportunities to push across a run or more in the fourth and fifth innings against Cleveland starter Dennis Martinez.  Atlanta had the bases loaded in the fourth with two outs but Rafael Belliard flied out to center field to end the inning.  In the fifth, the Braves had runners at first and second with two outs when Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove replaced Martinez with Jim Poole in order to face Fred McGriff.  Poole struck out McGriff to close out the inning.

In the sixth inning, Glavine gave up his only hit, a leadoff single to Tony Pena, but kept Cleveland from scoring.  David Justice led off the bottom of the sixth to a chorus of boos.  In two previous at bats Justice had walked and doubled, certainly doing his part to put the Braves on the scoreboard and mitigate the fan animosity he caused because of his comments the previous day.

On a 1-1 count, Justice launched Poole’s third pitch into the right field seats to give Atlanta a 1-0 lead. Pandemonium erupted in the stands as Justice circled the bases, and at least for the moment, Justice and the fans had a love affair that rivaled that of Antony and Cleopatra, Napoleon and Josephine, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall… well, you get the picture.

The Braves had secured that “damned” run for Glavine, and he rewarded them with two more shutout innings.  After pitching through the eighth inning, Glavine walked back to the dugout, pulled Mazzone and Bobby Cox aside, and told them he was done.  Cox decided to send out closer Mark Wohlers to pitch the ninth inning.  Lofton led off the inning and Cox and Mazzone were nervous.  They knew that if Lofton reached first base, the Braves were in trouble because Wohlers could not hold runners on base.  Lofton could easily steal second and/or third. The Braves had tried to change Wohler’s delivery in the past, but that only hindered his ability to throw strikes.  Cox and Mazzone just hoped Wohlers could get Lofton out some way.  On a 0-1 pitch, Lofton fouled out to Belliard in foul territory down the third base line.  Mazzone stated that at that point, he knew the Braves were going to win the game and the World Series.  Sure enough, as if on cue, Wohlers induced Paul Sorrento and Carlos Baerga to fly out to center fielder Marquis Grissom.  Venerable Braves broadcaster Skip Caray put it best, “Mark gets the sign.  The wind and the pitch, here it is…Swung, fly ball, deep left-center.  Grissom on the run… Yes! Yes! Yes! The Atlanta Braves have given you a championship!”

And so they did.  Amid fans hugging other fans, Ted Turner kissing Jane Fonda, and general ecstasy throughout, the players piled on one another near the mound.  After three World Series attempts, the Braves had achieved something that no other major sports franchise had ever done in Atlanta (and hasn’t done since)—they won a championship.

After the last out, Mazzone remained in the dugout, taking it all in.  He didn’t scream. He didn’t holler. He didn’t burst out in song. He didn’t rock.  He just sat there in quiet satisfaction. Later in the clubhouse, with a champagne bottle in hand, a reporter asked Mazzone about his pitching staff:  “I’m just so proud I could start crying right here and now.” (Rosenberg 1995, p. 159)  Many of the Braves fans in Atlanta and across the country did just that—cried.  So many years of bad baseball.  Close calls against Minnesota and Toronto.  Pent up frustration.  All washed away in the glory of a World Series title.

Two days later, thousands of fans lined Peachtree Street to honor their heroes.  Players and coaches rode on firetrucks in a parade that had been 30 years in the making.

The Atlanta Braves…World Series Champions!  Oh, but to hear those words again!

 

Freeman, Scott and Mazzone, Leo. Tales from the Braves Mound. Sports Publishing L.L.C., 2003.

Glavine, Tom and Cafardo, Nick. None but the Braves. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, www.sportspublishingllc.com, 1996.

Rosenberg, I.J. Bravo! The Inside Story of the Atlanta Braves’ 1995 World Series Championship. Marietta, GA: Longstreet Press, 1995.

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!