I’ve just returned from nine days in Atlanta (one day is too many days in Atlanta) for my day job (I’ll never forgive my day job).
I took the opportunity to go to a Falcons game and a couple Thrashers games, and remind myself of Atlanta’s sports culture. I’ve also been to a Braves game, and lived a couple years in Athens — which unfortunately led to more time spent in Atlanta — so I’ve developed a feel for their teams and fans.
Let’s see how this Southern metropolis measures up as a sports city.
Atlanta is one of the few cities with four major sports franchises, thanks to Gary Bettman’s infinitely wise decision to make the American South the heartland of the NHL. It’s an odd sports city, because it’s located in the core of college football country, but doesn’t have a major NCAA power to call its own. The University of Georgia is about 90 minutes away, and the Bulldogs are clearly the favored sons of the SEC in Atlanta. But most people who live in Atlanta are from somewhere else, so almost every other SEC team has a fair representation, which dilutes the overall passion of the fan base.
From a professional sports standpoint, Atlanta is a catastrophe.
The Hawks haven’t been consistently relevant since Dominique Wilkins left, and even in their mid-80’s heyday, they were never in the top two teams in the NBA. The Falcons have exactly one Super Bowl appearance and zero championships to their credit. The Thrashers…wait, what’s a Thrasher again? The Braves are the outlier here. But even the Braves’ impressive run of 15 straight playoff appearances is mitigated by the long, fallow period that preceded it, and the 1-for-15 World Series success rate in its midst.
Let’s put it this way: In the Phillips Arena, which the Hawks and Thrashers share, there are a few division title banners hanging from the rafters, along with a couple retired numbers for old St. Louis Hawks you’ve never heard of (plus Wilkins). To fill out the embarrassingly empty display, there’s a large banner commemorating the arena “going green,” and a banner honoring Widespread Panic’s 17 sold-out shows there over a 15-year period. Not consecutive.
The Braves’ tradition is comprised of Dale Murphy, Bobby Cox the wife-beater, Chipper Jones, and the Maddux/Smoltz/Glavine failed dynasty. Anything else was stolen from Milwaukee. The Hawks’ tradition is Wilkins and Spud Webb, and overpaying Joe Johnson. The Thrashers shouldn’t exist. The Falcons’ “Ring of Honor” includes greats like Steve Bartkowski, Tommy Nobis and William Andrews. There is no pro sports tradition in Atlanta. Unless NASCAR counts. Which it doesn’t.
The Braves stopped selling out playoff games long before they stopped appearing in the playoffs. A Thrashers game on a Thursday night drew 5,000 people, and that’s being generous. (But by all means, let’s keep NHL franchises out of Canada and keep them in Phoenix and Florida.) A game for first place between the Falcons and Bucaneers didn’t come close to selling out.
Atlanta fans are notoriously disinterested and passive. Their pro attendance is historically anemic. The SEC title game always sells out the Georgia Dome, though.
The Game Experience
Atlanta sporting events are a neverending blitz of distractions for bored fans with attention deficit disorder. T-shirt cannons, cheerleaders and dance girls, scoreboard nonsense…all that shit is more a part of going to an Atlanta game than the actual sporting event. The Falcons actually have a DJ set up in a booth on the sidelines to coordinate all the between-play contests, Li’l Jon songs and kiss cams.
The Phillips Arena is nice, shiny and clean, but ultimately soulless. The Georgia Dome is no better than average for a modern football stadium. Turner Field is nice, but way the hell out there in the middle of nowhere. It’s the opposite of a neighborhood ballpark. Meanwhile, the Georgia Dome and Phillips Arena are adjacent to each other, in a neighborhood you don’t want to walk through at night. Atlanta doesn’t have one legitimately great sports facility.
Overall Atlanta Sports City Rating: D. Where’s Sherman when you need him?