NEW YORK – There have been plenty of synergies between Arthur Blank’s Atlanta United FC MLS team and his Atlanta Falcons NFL team, like the sharing of sports science information and ATLUTD president Darren Eales sitting in on the Atlanta Falcons’ last three NFL drafts to learn strategies of the very American player acquisition mechanism.
But what has surprised Blank is that it turns out his two Atlanta professional sports teams do not share the same fan base.
“Internally we all had projected what would be the crossover from Atlanta Falcons to Atlanta United in terms of season ticket holders. Everyone from our management team guessed between 10-25 percent [crossover],” Blank said during a small media roundtable at Yankee Stadium during Atlanta United’s visit to New York earlier this week. “For us, it’s less than 2.5 percent.”
That soccer supporter base has proceeded to lift Atlanta to the top of several key categories – even before their first game.
“It’s a mistake to to attribute the fan reaction to the relative success we’ve had on the pitch, because that fan reaction has been there for six to nine months,” Blank said. “Every aspect of the standard you’d look for in terms of fan interaction and fan engagement for the longest time, we’ve been at the very top.”
And those fans who pack Bobby Dodd Stadium – the club sold out its first three games – are even more knowledgeable than Eales expected. He originally figured it would take a season for supporters to find their voice. As it turned out, it didn’t even take a game.
“To a man, woman and child, everyone stood up throughout the game and that’s happened for every game since,” Eales said. “If you went to a game now you’d think this is a club that’s been around 20 to 30 years.”
It only helps that Atlanta United also happen to be playing some of the most attractive soccer in the league and they're also doing it with young stars – forward Josef Martinez is 23, midfielder Miguel Almiron is 23 and midfielder Hector Villalba is 22 – which Blank calls a “brilliant strategy.”
“It’s very easy with a blank sheet of paper and say, ‘OK, I want us to play attacking and play a certain way,’” Eales said. “But from the very first time I met Carlos [Bocanegra, technical director], we wanted to try and do things with that aim: to be entertaining and to be a team people want to watch play. And we did that by going for young Designated Players."
Eales said the biggest testament to the on-field success hasn’t been the club’s three league wins, but rather the 19 goals scored, which is currently tied for second in the league, one behind the Portland Timbers, the team they face on national television Sunday at 4 pm ET (ESPN, ESPN Deportes in USA; TSN2 in Canada).
“To be able to establish straightaway that we’re trying to play this attacking soccer with a coach like Tata Martino, I think for us has been the most exciting thing to happen," said Eales, "because it’s a bit like a laboratory experiment until it actually happens on the field."