By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 22, 2017) US Soccer Players – The usual response when I tell people that I went to seven elementary schools, three middle schools, and three high schools is something along the lines of “That must have been hard.” For most people, the idea of changing schools every few years sounds scary and challenging and they simply can’t imagine what it must have been like to have adjust to something new so often.
And yes, it was scary and challenging to move from place to place because of my father’s career as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. But changing addresses so often gave me the opportunity to experience different parts of the country, something I might have otherwise had.
Two of the stops we made as an Air Force family were in Montgomery, Alabama, home to a “university” for air force officers at Maxwell Air Force Base.
One of the things that stands out most to me as adult from my time living in the Deep South at two different points in the 90s was the popularity of the Atlanta Braves. Even in Montgomery, a state over 160 miles away, the power of the Braves name was palpable. If you were a baseball fan in Alabama – or Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee for that matter – there was a very good chance you rooted for the Braves.
That’s not just because the Braves suddenly figured out how to win in the 90s. By virtue of the reach of WTBS, the Braves’ regular broadcaster, the baseball team was the team of choice across much of the southern United States starting with the launch of the channel in the 70s. With no other Major League Baseball clubs within 500 miles in any direction, there was no competition among the small cities, towns, and rural communities of the South for the hearts and minds of baseball fans.
It’s the Braves’ status of Team of the South and television deal that precipitated it makes that news of Atlanta United’s local television deal with Fox Sports South and Fox Sports Southeast extremely intriguing. Atlanta United dropped the news on Tuesday that 19 matches of the club’s inaugural season (those not otherwise on any of the national TV outlets of Fox, ESPN, or Unimas) will be broadcast across much of the region via the cable network as part of a multi-year deal. Depending on the particular match, Atlanta United’s games could be available in as many as 10 million homes from the Carolinas in the east to Mississippi in the west.
Though the media and sports environments have changed dramatically since the Braves entrenched themselves as the South’s favorite baseball team, there’s no reason to think that Atlanta United can’t replicate the same sort of success in the soccer venue. Not only have demographics shifts made the ground fertile for a professional soccer club in Atlanta itself, those same demographics are at work in many mid-sized cities that dot the Southeast. Atlanta United’s launch is big and brassy and sure to catch the attention of fans who live in places too far away to be part of the club’s core market.
Places like Montgomery. The capital of Alabama has a metro population of over 350,000 and boasts a growing youth soccer scene, but does not have a club in the first four divisions of the American pyramid. It doesn’t take much of a leap of faith to imagine that there are thousands of young soccer players in the Montgomery area who will find themselves attached to Atlanta United before too long.
The ability to see the new team play on television every week makes for an easy point of entry for potential fans who have previously never attached themselves to an MLS team, regardless of age. Despite a perception that the South is college football country to the exclusion of everything else, there is rich potential in the region. A host of cities – places like Birmingham, Greenville, Knoxville, Columbia, Jackson, and more – make for fertile recruiting ground for new fans. Fans who already culturally accustomed to looking toward Atlanta for a team to follow.
From the day the club joined MLS, Atlanta United’s potential as a regional draw was obvious. The league’s desire to place a team in Atlanta had as much to do with the larger reach the franchise could achieve as it did with Arthur Blank’s ownership or the proven efficacy of Atlanta itself as a soccer market. The Southeast represented an entirely untapped area of the country for MLS and its television partners. If the league is going to boost its TV ratings and feed into the more lucrative rights contracts in the future, throwing a blanket over a significant portion of the country was important.
There are expansion bids in from a few other southern markets, namely Nashville, Charlotte, and Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill. Any one of them getting into the League could undercut Atlanta’s potential as the soccer team of the South, though only in their specific areas. While all three are “regional” cities of some note, none quite has the history and pull of Atlanta.
It’s worth the reminder that some of those places already have soccer teams. Some fans in those cities, already attached to their existing non-MLS clubs, may not give themselves over to Atlanta United.
Regardless, it looks very possible that history will repeat itself, only in soccer. Atlanta United’s splashy signings and big name manager are a message not just to the rest of MLS, but to the region for which their city serves as a central hub. A television deal that beams Atlanta United across the whole of the region sets the stage for a new pro sports team to lay claim the same territory the Braves so successfully made their own.
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