Not too often does my Minnesota United FC fandom cross paths with a course I’m teaching, but last week I ran across a fabulous podcast about a new major league soccer expansion team, Atlanta United. Now, as a Minnesota fan I’m jealous of many things Atlanta United (e.g. their stadium, making the playoffs, their roster). To be clear, I’m thoroughly on the Minnesota bandwagon. Nonetheless, Atlanta United gets my full jealous, former Atlanta-resident, Eastern conference respect. But, what does this all have to do with New Missional Ministries, a new course I’m teaching next semester?
On a recent Men in Blazers podcast (10/19/17), Rog interviews Darren Eales, club president of Atlanta United. Eales started a team from scratch and joined the league this year. They are predicted to win their first playoff game, which would be pretty crazy. (For perspective, Minnesota United also joined the league this year, though they build on their already existing franchise that was previously part of a lower league. Our record was 10-18-6.) The most impressive feat, however, is Atlanta’s attendance numbers.
This team had not played a single game in MLS as of this time last year. Last weekend, 71,825 people showed up for their game.! The average league attendance is 22,158 per game (which, actually, is pretty good). But, boy, Atlanta United has blown everyone else away.
What lessons might new church planters learn from Atlanta United’s success? Here’s a few of my initial thoughts.
First, leadership is so key. Perhaps this is obvious, but a ton of Atlanta United’s success came from two factors. Their owner, Arthur Blank, apparently took on a man-of-the-people role and hung out with fans at bars, showed up for meet and greets, and generally let the soccer experts do their thing. They also scored a brilliant coach, Gerardo “Tata” Martino to take the helm with his exciting, creative, offensively-minded style.
Go to where the people are. I mentioned bars earlier, and they seemed to have been key to developing a fan base. Eales repeatedly mentioned he went to where the fans—and potential fans—were to develop relationships on their turf and build the Atlanta United brand. Management also used the diverse nature of Atlanta as an asset, leaning-in to immigrant communities and communities of color.
Be who you are. Given that the Atlanta Falcons (NFL) share the same stadium as Atlanta United, it would have been easy to try to piggy-back on Falcons fans to build United’s support. Instead, Eales saw potential Atlanta United fans as a distinct market with their own interests, lifestyles, and values (e.g. beer and coffee preferences — listen to the podcast). Crazily, there’s a less than 10% crossover in season ticket holders between the two teams.
Frankly, I’m always a bit skeptical of business-based marketing, brand management, target marketing, and the like. But, for whatever reason, I have more affinity for fandom and fan cultures. I suppose starting a new faith community may have to do with both fields, but if fandom is about relationships, an inspirational “product” that’s embodied on the field, and the potential of further growth and success, then I’m all in.
Best of luck to Atlanta United in the playoffs. And, remember, Minnesota United will always be the team that brought you your first loss at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.