For reasons unclear, I’m occasionally called to converse via radio with an audience in some other town. Invariably I’m asked, “Why is Atlanta such a bad sports city?” And invariably I’ll say this:
“Actually, Atlanta isn’t a bad sports city.”
When folks in other places think of Atlanta sports, they see the empty seats at Braves playoff games or they recall the Falcons and their wild mood swings. (Sometimes they even think of the Hawks. Not the Thrashers, though.) But there’s more to Atlanta sports than the teams that carry the word “Atlanta” on their jerseys. We’re about to see it yet again.
Georgia Tech opens its season against Jacksonville State on Saturday. Georgia, which technically isn’t based in Atlanta but which has something of an Atlanta following, plays Oklahoma State in Stillwater that day. And that night Alabama and Virginia Tech, each ensconced in the top 10, meet under the off-white roof of the Georgia Dome.
And that’s my argument: We might be fickle and trendy when it comes to our pro teams, but when it comes to colleges we aren’t the worst sports city in these United States. We’re the best.
Says Gary Stokan, president of the Atlanta Sports Council: “I tell people all the time that our two biggest pro teams are Georgia and Georgia Tech.”
And it’s not just UGA and Tech. We have alums from everywhere. Take a lap around the Perimeter on an autumn weekend, and you’ll see cars bound for Athens, yes, but also farther north to Clemson. And east to Columbia. And west to Tuscaloosa. And north to Knoxville. And south to Gainesville. And southwest to the loveliest village. One lap and you’ll see so many different flags fluttering from vehicles you’d swear you’d happened upon a mobile United Nations.
Only that’s the thing: We’re not united in our collegiate loyalties. We’re split a dozen different ways. That doesn’t mean we care any less about sports. It just means that, unlike hardy New Englanders, we don’t all hang on Papelbon’s next delivery.
What outsiders fail to grasp is that we Atlantans don’t exactly ignore our pro teams. (Even when there were empty seats at Turner Field in October, did anyone among us not follow the games?) But there’s only so much disposable income and so many fan-hours in a week.
“That’s one thing people don’t consider,” says Khalil Johnson, who just retired as general manager of the World Congress Center and the Georgia Dome. “There’s so much money going out of this town on Saturday afternoons.”
But plunk a big-time college game under the off-white roof and see how many empty seats you espy. The SEC championship is an automatic sellout. Ditto the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Ditto the new Kickoff Classic, which this year comes on a weekend when the Braves are home and NASCAR is running at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
I’ve been around this nation of ours, and I can tell you there’s no other major city — not New York, not L.A., not Chicago, not Boston, not Dallas — that behaves as we do on autumn Saturdays. Simply put, we care more about college football than we do about anything else, which isn’t to say we don’t care about the other stuff. But our roots to the college game simply run deeper.
Think of it this way: Bobby Dodd and Vince Dooley were coaching against one another when the Braves were still in Milwaukee. Dodd was coaching against Wally Butts when the Braves were based in Boston.