ATLANTA – For a new soccer team in the city, there was no better place in Atlanta to find future fans than at the Georgia Dome this past May 28, as Mexico and Paraguay faced off in a pre-Copa America warm-up friendly.
More than 63,000 people, most swathed in El Tri garb, gathered to take in both an exciting match on the field and a rousing party off it. Hours before kickoff, and well before fans were even allowed into the stadium, thousands had gathered outside to enjoy live music, refreshments and other assorted entertainment.
They donned the usual colorful gear, some in sombreros emblazoned with “Viva Mexico,” others sporting faux green, red and white mohawks. Many wore El Tri jerseys bearing the names of today’s stars like Chicharito, or those of yesteryear, like Cuauhtémoc Blanco.
Amid those throngs, future MLS side Atlanta United set up their own station where attendees could design their own flags or take a photo in front of a backdrop with the Atlanta United crest. An even larger crowd gathered when Atlanta United technical director – and former US men’s national team captain – Carlos Bocanegra appeared with team president Darren Eales for a question, answer and autograph session.
It all proved how critically important Latino fans are to one of MLS’ newest clubs — and how Atlanta United are specifically reaching out to Mexican national team supporters.
At that friendly, at least, it seemed to be working. “More stuff like this, events like this,” would help, said attendee Albert Arroyo of Sandy Springs, Georgia. “I’m pretty sure Atlanta United is going to have a lot of fans.”
Bocanegra, Eales and everyone else at Atlanta United hope he’s right that the club will win over the Metro Atlanta region’s growing Latino population.
Of the Atlanta area’s total Latino population of nearly 550,000, those of Mexican origin number around 314,000. That number is up from 165,000 in 2000, a 90-percent increase in just a decade’s time. (By comparison, the second largest group of Latinos, Puerto Ricans, number 44,000.)
Though Latinos only make up only 10.9 percent of the region’s total population, they could play an outsized role in Atlanta United’s fanbase, at least if past figures are any indication. A 2014 Nielsen report found that 34 percent of the overall MLS audience is Latino.
It will be critically important for Atlanta United to build a close relationship with the local Mexican-American community as they prepare to launch the city’s newest professional sports franchise. The question is: How can they do it?
Tania Salazar, an El Tri fan attending the Mexico-Paraguay friendly, said she thinks they don’t have to do much to attract Latino fans to the club.
“Honestly, I think they’ll come regardless, because it’s soccer,” she said. “We’re just a big fan of soccer.”
Elicer Cruz of Marietta, currently a fan of Toluca in Liga MX, agreed.
“Right now I’m looking for the Mexican games on the TV, but when you have a team in the city, you’re going to go to the team in the city, right?” he said. “The best thing to do is make a commercial in Spanish and you get all the Spanish speakers here.”
Atlanta United’s outreach efforts already go well beyond Spanish-language advertising.
The day before that Mexico-Paraguay friendly, Atlanta United hosted a media presentation and tour at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium that will open with a United match in 2017. Bocanegra and Eales answered questions from reporters, most of whom represented Spanish-language media.
Bocanegra told them the club plan to take a “completely different approach” when it comes to engaging the community.
“It’s not just us going out and saying, ‘Hey, we’d love for you guys to buy tickets; the Hispanic market loves soccer.’ That’s not what we’re looking to do,” he said.
To find talent to fill their new youth academy, Atlanta United are looking beyond the traditional youth clubs to scout elsewhere. Among the communities and groups they are targeting are Liga Lawrenceville, an amateur league northeast of Atlanta; Dalton, a heavily Latino city located near the Tennessee border; and Clarkston, a city near Atlanta that’s home to thousands of resettled refugee families.
Meanwhile, they continue specific outreach to El Tri supporters. The May 28 game marked the fifth time Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank has welcomed the Mexican national team to Georgia Dome, going back to a friendly against Venezuela in 2009. (The stadium also hosted a friendly between Liga MX’s Club América and Serie A’s AC Milan.) Each of these has drawn large crowds, ranging from 50,000 to 71,500.
Atlanta United are also building close ties with the Mexican team in other ways. In April, they welcomed Mexico’s head coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, as well as director of national teams, Santiago Baños, on a Mercedes-Benz Stadium tour. They followed that with a press conference in which Osorio praised Bocanegra’s hiring as technical director as a big step forward for the club.
Looking ahead, the team may well attract additional attention through the signing of one or more Designated Players from Mexico. Forward Carlos Vela and midfield Andrés Guardado have been part of the rumor mill recently, although the club have given no official indication of their DP targets.
Ultimately, though, it comes down mainly to producing a team people cannot help but support.
“We want to create a winning team,” Eales said. “I think then, regardless of where you’re from, you’re going to support Atlanta’s club.”