46,000 fans a game: Atlanta United's strange success far from soccer's heartland
Two Major League Soccer expansion clubs first took the field in March 2017, both bearing the moniker “United”. One in Minneapolis, the other, in Atlanta— a city in that lower-third of the American map which, conventional wisdom holds, stands in stark opposition to the globalist concerns of either American coast, and could therefore never deign to care about a sport as preposterously effete as soccer, where flopping is rewarded.
Five months later, Atlanta United boast the highest average home attendance in Major League Soccer history (46,318 fans per game, more than any other MLS, NBA, NHL or MLB franchise in the country) and are in contention for the playoffs, while Minneapolis United play to smaller than league-average crowds.
So what gives?
Changing a culture
Until recently, the United States — particularly the southernmost ones away from the soccer hipsters of Brooklyn and Portland — have not been known as a haven offutbol culture. The same held true for Atlanta, where even a “North American” sport like hockey was unable to garner sufficient audience to survive (the NHL’s Thrashers left the city in 2011). And yet, Atlanta United played their first home game to 55,297 fans in March — the best-attended match of MLS opening weekend by a factor of two and the fourth-largest soccer crowd in the world that week.
One explanation for the shift towards soccer in southern cities such as Atlanta may lie in the nature of the sport itself. In The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, authors Chris Anderson and David Sally differentiate between two kinds of social ecosystems — “weak-link” and “strong-link”. Strong-link sports have traditionally been popular in the individualist culture of the United States, while weak-link sports dominate countries throughout the world. In a strong-link sport, the greatest impact is typically made by Atlas-like individuals, who take the world onto their shoulders to win games (LeBron James and Tom Brady come to mind). Weak-link sports are more cooperative. A soccer team may require 10 perfect passes to score, meaning that a single weak link in the chain can derail the entire enterprise. Likewise, a single strong player is usually precluded from inflicting any outsized dominance on the competition.
Could it be that this disparity in value systems helps explain why soccer is primarily catching on in America’s more progressive cities, such as Atlanta? Additionally, Anderson links soccer’s recent surge in popularity to the United States’ late 20th-century immigration boom (which helped create the multicultural atmosphere of cities like Atlanta), noting that, “the stock of soccer knowledgeable people in American communities has increased, especially in urban areas.”
Atlanta United president Darren Eales, who is British, agrees. “I look back 23 years ago when I was playing in America, we were lucky to get a thousand people a game and the biggest cheer was when the goalkeeper punted the ball high into the air. That was the level of soccer sophistication. Now, we’ve got a country that knows the game.”
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