This just in: Atlanta, Ga., is NOT a lousy sports city!

We get interested in college football pretty early down here. (AJC photo by Sunny Sung)

We get interested in college football pretty early down here. (AJC photo by Sunny Sung)

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.”

If you factor in college football, is Atlanta a bad sports city?

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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.

197 comments Add your comment

SEC Rules!

August 31st, 2009
3:10 pm

I’ve had this argument with my transplanted friends for years. And do you want to hear a dirty little secret that ESPN doen’t like to report? The new Yankee Stadium doesn’t hasn’t been full yet, and the last time the Yanks were in the playoffs there were games that didn’t sell out.

We are just as passionate here in Atlanta, but as you point out Mark, our loyalties are to colleges, and they are divided.

Ryno

August 31st, 2009
3:14 pm

Atlanta is a world class football town. We should be tops on the list of potential cities if they choose to expand the BCS.

Saint Simons

August 31st, 2009
3:17 pm

45 -42 !!!!!!!!!!!! hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

Uh, what?????

August 31st, 2009
3:20 pm

“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 best sports city in these United States. We’re the best.”

Say what? “We aren’t the best sports city in these United States. We’re the best”

Are we, or are we???????

BigDawg

August 31st, 2009
3:21 pm

Between the 92,000 plus at Sanford Stadium every home game and the 18,000 plus every home game at GT enjoying Varsity giveaways, there are over 110K football fans within a small radius on any given Sat, not to mention the immmigrants from UF,UT and other schools whose colors match the fans’ orange hunting vests who found GA to be a much better state than the state of confusion they are from!!

heartofdarkness

August 31st, 2009
3:22 pm

Pretty tough to get an ancient eight telecast in ATL, Mark.

Mark Bradley

August 31st, 2009
3:23 pm

Whoops, sorry. I wrote “best” when I meant “worst.” Fixed now.

Uh, what? wins today’s proofreading contest. Thanks for catching it.

Uh, what?????

August 31st, 2009
3:23 pm

And if you go southeast, you sure won’t get to the loveliest village – you’ll get to Statesboro!

You must have gone north to KY!

m

August 31st, 2009
3:27 pm

And there will be a helle of a lot more than 18k at Bobby Dodd this November for the second consecutive stomping of the dawgs. Book it.

Jeff

August 31st, 2009
3:27 pm

Athens…no…ATL yes!

Whopper Dawg

August 31st, 2009
3:27 pm

You put a pro winner out there and typically you will fill the seats. But our hearts and souls reside in the college game. Keep in mind that Atlanta is the only city in the college Bible belt (SEC) with all four professional sports. The northeast cities and mid-west cities that are absolutely nuts about professional sports really don’t have two major colleges which both have enormous fan bases in the city. Having lived a brief (thank God it was brief) period of time in Phillie, I can tell you college sports are so far down the priority list they should be in a separate section of the paper.

That's OK m...

August 31st, 2009
3:27 pm

…we never quit laughing at you, either!

shadydave

August 31st, 2009
3:28 pm

ESPY!!! word of the day!!!

Nativebird

August 31st, 2009
3:29 pm

the Pro problem in Atlanta is the nature of it’s recent growth (80’s until now) in population. Atl is a transient city. All these spineless homers keep their Yankees crap when they decided years ago to abandon the CESPOOL they left in New York and moved hear!
Note to all spineless homers who live, play, work and raise a family in Atlanta: You came here for a reason, you live here, your kids go to school here, and you pay taxes here….GET ON BOARD YOU insecure lame wanna bes and support YOUR hometown teams.

Mark Bradley

August 31st, 2009
3:30 pm

Yes, and I’ve used it twice, ShadyDave. Which means I need a new word pretty bad.

Mark Bradley

August 31st, 2009
3:31 pm

And Auburn is indeed southwest of Atlanta, not southeast. But that’s only if you don’t go by way of Savannah.

mudcat

August 31st, 2009
3:32 pm

Your focus is a little narrow, Mark. It’s that way throughout the state. Everyone lives and breaths the college games. Where I live it’s mostly Dawg country, but with a lot of Auburn and Tide fans. We may not travel a hundred miles to see a Braves game, but we’ll travel to wherever see our college teams play.

Ga. Southern

August 31st, 2009
3:35 pm

Go you Feathery Eagles! Screech!Screech!Screech!Screech!Screech!

U, what????

August 31st, 2009
3:36 pm

ANd if you go east you surely will not get to Columbia, either, unless, when you get to Augusta you make the north turn and get going back west on I26 to Columbia!

That KY education really is something!!!!

MightyQuinn

August 31st, 2009
3:42 pm

Basically the majority of pro sports fans in this city are fair-weather, bandwagon jumpers who go with the winners. And the pricing of pro sports tickets has priced a casual fan of a sport out of the arena. For instance, I enjoy hockey but to pay over a hundred bucks for a center ice seat is insane when I can go to Gwinnett and sit in comparable seats for twenty bucks or so and still see some decent hockey. Ditto minor league baseball. There is no way the average person can afford to support, by attendence, four pro sports teams plus two major college teams.

Mark Bradley

August 31st, 2009
3:43 pm

You know, I’m not giving GPS directions here. I’m speaking generally. We’ll leave Columbia as “east,” OK?

Heck...

August 31st, 2009
3:46 pm

Columbia is not east of anywhere, except Clemson!

Mr Me

August 31st, 2009
3:47 pm

Thank you Mark, you have finally written what i have been preaching for years. Despite the empty seats at Turner field the Braves actually have a huge following albeit mostly by TV or radio, this could be due to the large amount of games baseball teams play so people spread out when they attend games. With football there are only a few games a year so people try to make every single one. Even though the Braves may have a larger following than say the Dawgs, college football fans are much more passionate. If you were to be a Phillies or Mets fan in Atlanta you will get some harassment but try being a Tech or Gator fan in Athens you will get run outta town.

Ryno

August 31st, 2009
3:52 pm

Mr. Bradley,

In speaking with my grandparents – they both confirm that in the 70’s and 80’s, there were a fair amount of Cincinnati Reds fans in Atlanta. The Braves were relatively new and until they moved the franchise from Milwaukee to Atlanta, the Reds were the closest pro franchise to southern cities.

The building of a pro sports town is an interesting study. I’ve always maintained that whatever affiliation (college or pro) the town/region has championships in earliest is the way the fans will gravitate. Miami is another interesting study. A title for the Dolphins in the 70’s and since then multiple Hurricane titles. But they barely put 40k in the stadium for Canes games (unless the Noles or Gators are in town) and you can’t find seats for the Dolphins games!

dap01

August 31st, 2009
3:55 pm

UGA is a top ten team every year, their athletic related sales are in the top 3. UGA is on National TV every week. And if you consider that GA Tech gets on TV often (when they play UGA or if Boise State is not playing on Thursday night). Considering all of this ATL is a great college town.

Where else can you get tickets, free refreshments and mid-major college football (TECH) tickets with a fill up of gas?

Yellow is a good color.

Paul H

August 31st, 2009
3:58 pm

And yet Tech still can’t sell out a 55,000 seat stadium.

Lou

August 31st, 2009
3:58 pm

Don’t forget. Atlanta is a first generation pro sports town. In the Norhteast, grandfathers told their grandkids about Ruth, Gehrig, Ted Williams, etc. I grew up on stories about Sinkwich and Trippi. Because our pro sports teams starte sarriving in rhe 60’s, there have been no pro sports allegiances to hand down to the next generation. That takes a few decades and is starting to happen here finally..but the colleges have been entrenched here for over 100 years playing football..that is where the true passion will always be.

GeoffDawg

August 31st, 2009
3:58 pm

Good points across the board Mark. I think you could also mention how big high school football is across the metro area. In Cobb County alone, there’s something like 14 or 15 AAAAA programs which are always packed on Friday nights.

GeoffDawg

August 31st, 2009
4:03 pm

I think the popularity of college sports over pro sports is also based somewhat in the national perception of the South as is typically portrayed in the major media outlets. This in turn inspires the locals to develop the bunker mentality of “we’re in this together” and could be why we’re more likely to root for teams which are more indicative of the local culture and more likely to be comprised of local talent than what you find with the pros. You get a sense that UGA represents you in a way the Falcons or Hawks never could.

Fried chicken skin is greasy and delicious

August 31st, 2009
4:04 pm

People here don’t waste their money on the pro teams if they don’t win. It’s that way in lots of cities. It’s just that often all of ours stunk at the same time.

Sweet Home Alabama

August 31st, 2009
4:06 pm

and dont forget that Alabama owns the whole towm.

Dobearsbare

August 31st, 2009
4:06 pm

The transient city point is a key one, as is this: Any attendance comparisons to New York and Boston aren’t really fair. New York has 20 million people or so in its metro area, and Boston as, what, 12-13 million? Atlanta? 5 million, a significant percentage of whom came from other places. If the teams in NY and Boston weren’t winning, they’d have empty seats. Plus, Fenway Park, while certainly historic and distrinctive, only seats about 38,000 people. Easier to sell out 38,000 in a 12 million metro area than a 52,000 in a 5 million area. You want a bad sports city? Take a look at Miami.

eastbound and down

August 31st, 2009
4:07 pm

Mark,
you’re grasping at straws. the u of G and Tech have support throughout the state. This article, like so many other bs columns from so many other writers, begins with a speculative conclusion, which in turn is supported by a hypothesis (the reverse of any rational analysis) and then passed off as fact.

La Jolla Dawg

August 31st, 2009
4:13 pm

Hey Nativebird, I am one of those spineless homers you refer to, only I live in La Jolla and root for the Falcons, Braves, Hawks and most of all–Bulldogs. I had someone tell me the exact same thing you just posted after I celebrated the Falcons recent victory over the Chargers. You should put your focus on shouting down the transplants when they root for their team in your house. My family and I cheer for the Braves whenever they play the Padres, we just don’t do it in an obnoxious manner. If the Padres fans don’t like it, they can drown us out. We were also in Qualcomm Stadium last year when the Falcons beat the Chargers. If there are tickets available we will come. Same is true in the ATL.

EW

August 31st, 2009
4:14 pm

MB, we are a city of transplants so we have a huge base for fans from other cities. Also, MARTA doesn’t go to the Braves stadium and who wants to be on 85 any night of the week for a game? Also we live in the south but play football in a DOME, dumbest idea ever. Who wants to leave the awesome fall weather in ATL to go inside to watch a game that is supposed to be played on grass. I don’t think this is a bad sports town from the fans perspective; the problem is that the city doesn’t cater to its fans like other towns do.

Old Dawg

August 31st, 2009
4:14 pm

Mark, if you want to get to USC, just go east till to you smell it and then north till you step in it.

Mark Bradley

August 31st, 2009
4:17 pm

MARTA’s fail to put a station at the stadium is one of the great follies of our time, EW. Skip Caray railed (no pun intended) about this at length.

And I’ve never minded the Dome. The Peach Bowl got new life when it moved indoors, and Atlanta wouldn’t have gotten the Final Four or the SEC title game without it.

Blondie

August 31st, 2009
4:24 pm

What? No picture of Buzz holding a baby in Tech gear?! Buzz is way more kid friendly and uh, won’t drool on your child. Of course to a UGA fan, getting drooled on by uga equates to getting your kid baptized, doesn’t it? *snicker*

Chopdawg

August 31st, 2009
4:26 pm

Mark B. makes a great point: if you live in the Southeast, there are more bigtime college football games available to you than there are to fans anywhere else in the US. I live in Rome GA, and there are at least 10 major-college football stadiums within a four-hour drive of my house–so I can drive to these places, see a game if I can get a ticket, and drive back all in one day.

I’ve seen games in most of these exotic places: Grant Field, Sanford Stadium, Jordan-Hare, Bryant-Denny, Neyland, Vanderbilt Stadium, Death Valley in Clemson, Davis Wade in Starkville…also the Georgia Dome & Legion Field.

Compare this to the situation of so many sports fans in so many large metropolitan areas, & it’s easy to see that fans in and around Atlanta have more on their bigtime sports plate than fans in most other cities…so their loyalties are bound to be divided.

GeoffDawg

August 31st, 2009
4:28 pm

Right on about Uga blondie. And I say that with no shame whatsoever. Buzz, on the other hand, is about as engaging a mascot as Whatisit.

Pensacola dawg

August 31st, 2009
4:28 pm

Mark, aren’t you stretching it a bit saying tech is more popular than the hawks or thrashers or for goodness sakes the braves?

Blondie

August 31st, 2009
4:30 pm

Additionally, I was watching the Red Sox game Sunday and there was a proud Tech fan sitting behind home plate at Fenway – donning his GT hat. Made me happy to not be the only Sox/Jackets fan on the planet :)

Blondie

August 31st, 2009
4:34 pm

LOL whatever, Buzz break dance fights other mascots… he’ll serve anyone. Plus, he rocks the Chuck Taylors – which I’m sorry, is both old school and badass.

GeoffDawg

August 31st, 2009
4:35 pm

I guess anybody associated with Jason Varitek is probably a jacket/sox fan.

shennee faneneee

August 31st, 2009
4:36 pm

Because Atlanta fans are fair weather fans. They only really support their teams when they are winning. I remember when the Braves were the worst team in baseball and nobody went to the games until they started winning. Another reason is there are so many people here who are from somewhere else so they cheer for their home teams.

big boys watch pro sports

August 31st, 2009
4:37 pm

If you insist on cheering for teams in country towns, why move to a major league city?

Stay in Athens, Auburn, etc., and leave Atlanta to the PROFESSIONALS.

Mark Bradley

August 31st, 2009
4:40 pm

It’s my belief there’s a greater and deeper passion for Tech football year-in and year-out than for the Hawks or the Thrashers.

College Teams = Minor League

August 31st, 2009
4:41 pm

Buzz is the worst mascot in all of sports.

Chuck Taylors?! Only virgins think they’re badass.

GeoffDawg

August 31st, 2009
4:42 pm

Professionals don’t type in all caps.

rhynster

August 31st, 2009
4:43 pm

Mark, I think your comment about how our loyalties are divided among college teams also applies to pro sports teams, and that is bigger than the college factor.

Go into Boston or Chicago and see how long it takes you to find a Braves or a Falcons logo. But $10 says, in Atlanta, you’ll see at least a dozen other pro teams’ logos just on your commute home in the PM.

The problem has always been transplants, transplants, transplants.