Atlanta embraces soccer with futuristic stadium, rabid fans

Sports

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Atlanta boasts historic sports heroes like baseball’s “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron and basketball’s “human highlight film” Dominique Wilkins, but a futuristic stadium gave the city its latest legend less than two months ago when Atlanta United FC capped off its second season of existence by winning the Major League Soccer Cup.

FILE PHOTO: Jan 31, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; General overall view of replica Vince Lombardi trophy at Super Bowl LIII live at Centennial Park. The New England Patriots will play the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3, 2019. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports – 12084643/File Photo

The clinching game, a 2-0 victory over the Portland Timbers, was played on Dec. 8 in front of some 70,000 fans inside the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the team’s home pitch and center stage of a symbiotic relationship that has blossomed between United FC and its passionate fans.

The futuristic stadium features an ocular eight-pedal retractable roof, a floor-to-ceiling window facing Atlanta’s skyline and a six-story tall halo video board, the world’s largest. It will take center stage in the sporting world on Sunday when it hosts the National Football League’s New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII.

The venue’s state-of-the-art technology allows it to be converted easily from an NFL stadium into a soccer venue for United’s home games.

“With a push of a button, we can change the character, the look and the feel of the building … it makes it almost a chameleon,” said the stadium’s general manager, Scott Jenkins. “The building has played a role in the success of the United because of the experience that we are able to provide.”

For United FC games, some 60 rows of seats on the east side of the venue is an exclusive section for the team’s most ardent supporters, becoming a massive wall of rowdy fandom wearing the club’s black and red colors as they fly flags, cheer and chant.

“The crowd makes the stadium … when it is full it looks good, it sounds good,” said Curtis Jenkins, 39, the president of the Footie Mob, an Atlanta United fan club. “It’s impressive.”

The plan to make the facility flexible was the idea of Arthur Blank, owner of both the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and United FC. It was a selling point when he pitched the concept of a new stadium and soccer team to the community, Jenkins said.

“It was a mandate from the beginning that we create a special environment for soccer and that it was not a stepchild for football,” Scott Jenkins said.

The result has been record-breaking ticket sales and attendance during the club’s first two years of play, making it, according to Forbes, the league’s most valuable organization, worth $330 million.

The team’s popularity is also a product of the diversity of the city. Many young residents of Atlanta are transplants who are happy to embrace Atlanta’s soccer team even as they remain loyal to NFL, Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association teams from their original home regions, said Catie Griggs, vice president of business operations for United FC.

“Most people don’t have a life-long affinity for a MLS club … so the sport of soccer does not conflict with other passions,” she said.

The club’s logo has become a proxy for people’s pride in the city, she added, with many fans flying Atlanta United flags outside their homes even during the club’s off-season.

“What starts out as a cool thing to do on a Saturday, has turned into a group of rabid fans of the team,” Curtis Jenkins said.

Reporting by Brendan O’Brien; editing by Daniel Wallis and David Gregorio

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