- MLS team averaged over 53,000 fans per game last year in just the club’s second season
- Gate revenue on a par with teams in world’s top-five leagues, says club president Eales
- Founding members built excitement and fanbase by sharing key moments on social media
After just two seasons in Major League Soccer, Atlanta United has become one of the best-supported clubs in world football, with an average attendance of 53,002 last year – higher than Marseille, Liverpool or Newcastle United.
The club’s impressive ticket sales have delivered significant commercial returns. According to club president Darren Eales, Atlanta’s gate revenue is on a par with many teams from the top five leagues in the game.
Having a successful team (Atlanta won the MLS Cup final in 2018) and a state-of-the-art venue, the $1.5bn (€1.3bn) Mercedes-Benz Stadium, certainly help draw fans. But much of the reason for Atlanta’s local popularity is down to an innovative marketing campaign that took place from 2014-17, between Atlanta being awarded an MLS expansion place and United’s first league game.
Taking advantage of the long lead time, Eales implemented “grass-rilla marketing” – a mixture of grass-roots and guerrilla marketing – to engage a latent fanbase. The results were staggering: Atlanta’s inaugural match – against the New York Red Bulls, on March 5, 2017, at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium – had a crowd of 55,297. It was the fourth-highest attended match worldwide that weekend.
By then, Atlanta had already secured around 30,000 season-ticket holders, a figure which has since risen to above 38,000.
In its first season – which was split between Bobby Dodd Stadium and Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which opened in August 2017 – Atlanta averaged 48,200 fans a game, an MLS record. That campaign, Atlanta also twice broke the MLS single-game attendance records with crowds of 70,425 and 71,874.
In 2018, as the team progressed to MLS Cup glory and played a full season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta broke numerous attendance records including: MLS single game (72,243), play-off game (70,526), US Open Cup (41,012) and MLS Cup final (73,019).
Atlanta also led the league in average attendance (53,002), smashing its record from the previous season. Including play-off games, the team drew 55,700 per game, which represented the 14th highest in the world in 2017-18.
“It’s no accident that we ended up with the fans that we did because everything we did was focused around the fan,” says Eales, who was named one of SportBusiness’s top-10 trailblazing executives for 2018.
“We worked really hard from that early stage of really engaging and putting all our focus on our core fanbase. The view we took was, ‘this is a chance to take our supporters with us as we build the club’. The really exciting thing is that we don’t know what our ceiling is.”
On April 16, 2014, the day it was announced that Home Depot billionaire Arthur Blank – who also owns the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons – had been awarded an MLS expansion slot for $70m, Atlanta set up the Founders’ Club.
Encouraging fans to place $50 season-ticket deposits (for up to eight seats each), the initiative gave supporters the opportunity to become founding members of the club, with benefits such as recognition and priority seating at the yet-to-be-constructed Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
By September 2014, when it was announced that Eales would join the club as president – moving from Tottenham Hotspur, where he was director of football administration – over 15,500 season tickets had been reserved. That figure reached 29,000 by December 2015.
Eales believes much of the early interest in the team was down to the goodwill that Blank had gained in the Atlanta community, having established Home Depot in the city in 1978 and buying the Falcons in 2002.
“When it was known that Arthur was owner of the team, we had that instant credibility within the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia. This speaks volumes for the initial deposits that we had,” Eales says. “When people said soccer couldn’t work in this city and in the South, he was prepared to invest in those fans and we are seeing the rewards for that.”
From then, Eales and his team “rolled their sleeves up” to further interest in a team that was more than two years away from playing its first game.
One early initiative was visiting the various pubs and bars in the Atlanta metropolitan area when major football games were taking place – such as the 2015 Women’s World Cup finals and Premier League games at weekends – to meet potential supporters. Eales sometimes spent up to five days a week with football fans at sports bars across the city.
When Carlos Bocanegra joined as technical director in March 2015, supporters were invited to a bar to celebrate his arrival and drink a cocktail named after the former USA international. Eales and Bocanegra would also give their opinions on Uefa Champions League games to Atlanta’s social media accounts to try to engage fans. “We were living and breathing Atlanta United ambassadors,” Eales says. “We would use any opportunity we could to create content and create interest.”
Community events such as the Atlanta Jazz Festival and the Inman Park Festival were also leveraged to showcase the new team – and its growing fanbase – to the local population and continue to build excitement.
“Anywhere we could go that had big gatherings, we would have a stand there where we would do something that would engage fans who might be interested to come and join with us and we would try to get sign-ups,” Eales says. “It would be niche places like beer festivals, those type of areas where we could have a display, have some of our supporters club there to give their chants and cheering.”
As the club continued to gain momentum, Atlanta created more key moments in its evolution – such as the unveiling of the logo, team name, inaugural kit design and the announcement of inaugural head coach Tata Martino – to further engage fans and spread the word on social media.
“These were moments in which fans could share that love for the club and that feeling of having a connection,” Eales says. “What was happening was all of our founding members were basically our micro-ambassadors. They were the ones going out there, talking about the buzz, talking about the club and we slowly grew and grew.”
He adds: ”Our fans are working as our evangelists: they are bringing their neighbour, their mate who likes sport but might be a college football fan.”
Atlanta is, notably, the most-supported MLS team on Twitter, with 965,000 followers; Seattle Sounders are second with 550,000. ”We were number one [in MLS] on Twitter before we kicked a ball – that says it all,” says Eales.
“The fact that we were able to develop such an intense social-media following before we had even played a game – which is obviously a traditional way you can get that content out there – speaks a lot to our digital team and how we approached building a fanbase.”
In 2016, Atlanta launched a full academy programme – of Under-12, U13, U14, U16 and U18 age groups – partly to build the club out as a whole but also as another means to engage fans.
“We were the first [MLS] club to start our academy before the first team,” says Eales. “The perceived wisdom would have been in the past, ‘that’s a cash drain, let’s wait until we’ve got the first team playing and we’re creating revenues before we’ve done that’.
“[But] Arthur understood that the academy was going to be really important for us from a competitive, technical perspective but also from a fan basis, being out in the community.
“Our first ever academy game, we made it a big viewing party and we had 3,000 fans watch our academy. Remember, we didn’t have a team at that time but it gave our fans a moment to identify with the club, get together and share it on social media.
“When we did our cheering for the academy game…anything we did together…it gave the fans moments to share. And once we had the [first-team] matches, it was like rolling a snowball down a hill.”
Uniting a city of transplants
According to US Census data from 2010-14, 37 per cent of the metro Atlanta population was born in another US state, with several of its counties also having large pockets of foreign-born residents.
Atlanta United took full advantage of its position as a new team in a city of transplants to attract sports enthusiasts who had allegiances to other professional franchises across the country but were looking for a local team to support.
“When I joined, everyone was very positive about the owner, MLS growing in America and Atlanta as a place to live, but the one negative I kept hearing was that it was a fickle sports market. Atlanta had lost an ice hockey team [the NHL Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg in 2011] and perhaps at other sports they didn’t get a firm and fervent fanbase at their games,” says Eales.
“What we’ve found as we’ve built this club is that people have a pride in the city but they come from many other places and they bring with them the baggage of the teams they supported. But what Atlanta United did was give everyone a club that they could identify with and show their pride for their city because they didn’t those have those soccer allegiances before.
“The number of cars you’ll see with a Chicago Bulls or a Green Bay Packers sticker in Atlanta is significant, but Atlanta United is their team for Atlanta and their way of identifying with the city they’ve moved to and they are raising their family in or have their first job in.
“That is something we didn’t realise at the time but building the club from scratch, in the city that we were, in the time that we were…we were really able to hit that sweet spot.”
According to Eales, the “core group” of Atlanta fans live in the downtown neighbourhood – or ITP (Inside the Perimeter) – which contains a predominantly Millennial population.
Just five per cent of Falcons fans are also Atlanta supporters despite the teams sharing a stadium. “It’s remarkably small compared to what we thought going in,” says Eales. “It suggests a different audience and a different demographic.”
Reaping the commercial rewards
Both the size and demographic make-up of the Atlanta fanbase has proved a boon for the club commercially. According to Eales, Atlanta’s gate revenue is by far their biggest revenue source. “Our gate revenue would stand up with a lot of the clubs in the top five leagues around the world because of the numbers we’re pulling,” he says.
The club could make even more money from attendances by opening the top tier of Mercedes-Benz Stadium for every game but does not do so in order to ensure the best atmosphere possible.
“We’ve been very careful with the way we’ve managed it,” says Eales. “In our upper tier, we have curtains that are branded and they come vertically down and that creates a more intimate atmosphere and makes it much louder.
“There is an argument that we should open it all up and while we would get more revenue, we would lose the atmosphere, which is why people come to an Atlanta United game. We made the very determined and calculated decision and that we will only open the upper bowl for a certain number of games, because we want to sell out the whole bowl. In our second season, we were going to have four games full bowl, but due to demand we had five. This year we are going have six.
“So it’s not just about trying to make every dollar we can, it’s about trying to keep the excitement, fan energy, fan experience and also that competitive advantage with the team on the pitch with a full stadium and having that atmosphere.”
Atlanta has increased some ticket prices for the upcoming 2019 season after seeing that seats in certain sections were being sold far above face value on the secondary market. According to Eales, Atlanta has a season-ticket renewal rate of 95 per cent.
High attendances and on-field success have led to Atlanta having the most nationally-televised regular-season games in MLS. In the 2019 campaign, Atlanta will be on national TV 17 times, up from 16 last year.
According to Eales, this increased exposure will boost the club’s potential to gain new commercial partners, including for the sleeve patch inventory which the league will open up from 2020. It has been estimated that these partnerships could be worth more than $1m a year.
“Now we have an opportunity to go to clients and offer prime real estate, something on the shirt that is going to be seen in America,” says Eales. “We’re on the most number of national games this year because people are not only choosing Atlanta because of the team we’ve got on the pitch but also they want to show those games at the Mercedes-Benz stadium with our crowds, so we’re on national TV a lot.
“Before we were selling sunshine – and it was the same with the players as it was with commercial partners. We were selling a dream, because we had yet to play a game and we were talking big. But now we can back it up with real hard data that shows the eyeballs we’re reaching, the level of our fan affinity.”
Atlanta is also looking to further monetise the $60m Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta training ground and reserve team Atlanta United 2, which plays in the United Soccer League Championship. “It’s about how we can…grow the asset base and build on our commercial revenue. That is a focus for us this year,” says Eales.
However, Eales refuses to get complacent. “Now that we’ve got these big attendances, what we can’t afford to do is rest on our laurels or think that we’ve done the job and made it,” he says. “Before every home game, I always walk to an area where our fans tailgate and chat to the fans. That’s really important.
“We got to where we are because of our amazing fans and we must never forget that and we must always continue to engage with them.”