Take a bow, A-T-L. After an agonizing near-miss last year — we finished second to Seattle — we made it this time. We’re now No. 1 in Forbes magazine’s listing of America’s Most Miserable Sports Cities. Time for another ticker-tape parade down Peachtree!
Here’s the rationale of Tom Van Riper, who compiled the rankings:
Since last spring, the NHL Thrashers left town for Winnipeg, baseball’s Braves blew a near-lock playoff spot on the final day of the season and the NBA Hawks and NFL Falcons got bounced out of the postseason early yet again. That was enough to push Atlanta, always among the top finishers in Forbes’ annual ranking of America’s Most Miserable Sports Cities, back to the top spot for the first time since 2008.
And what can we say in rebuttal? All of the above is, alas, true.
The Forbes “methodology,” to invoke Van Riper’s word, concerns “misery as defined by heartbreak — teams good enough to win a lot of games and advance through the postseason, only to disappoint fans in the end by falling short of a championship.” That’s not the same as being, say, the Cubs over the past century or the Cavaliers after LeBron. But it does describe Atlanta.
The Hawks were a hot ticket in the late ’80s, same as the Falcons were in the late ’70s, just as the Braves became in the early ’90s. But disappointment broke the Hawks’ and Falcons’ waves — our NBA club couldn’t close out Boston in 1988 and flopped in Round 1 against Milwaukee in ‘89; our NFL franchise couldn’t get past Dallas — and the players’ strike of 1994 cooled our baseball ardor more than any postseason defeat every did.
That’s the part outsiders don’t get. From September 1991 through the summer of ‘94, this city was as crazy for a team as any city has ever been. (Remember the rush to buy foam tomahawks?) The Braves could have sold two million tickets to the 1992 postseason, but after the strike and the washed-out World Series, demand wasn’t the same. In October 1995, even as the Braves were en route to winning it all, you could walk up to the box office and buy tickets to single games for both the NLCS and the World Series.
Attendance at the old stadium dropped from 3.88 million in 1993, the year before the strike, to 2.9 million in 1996, the year after the World Series was won. Even the bump that came with the 1997 opening of Turner Field waned by 2001. Not since 2003 have the Braves finished higher than 14th in home attendance. It’s not that we stopped caring altogether; it’s that we don’t care quite enough to pack the stadium on a nightly basis.
I know, I know. Every other baseball city suffered from the strike, too. But Georgia is a right-to-work state, and the distrust of unions is higher here. Besides, the Braves simply won too often to hold us through every game of the 14-year run of division titles. We came to bide our time until the playoffs, and the playoffs came to yield Round 1 exits.
And those, I submit, hardened our predisposition to wait and see. We’d gotten excited about the Falcons and then the Hawks only to have hopes dashed. Then the Braves, who were the best Atlanta pro team ever, started doing it, too. Leeriness became our default civic stance. Thus was the Braves’ epic September collapse met with the same cry that had greeted the Falcons’ blowout playoff loss to Green Bay: “See? Told you so!”
We’ve had major-league sports teams since 1966, and only once has an Atlanta major-league team hoisted the big trophy, and that came a year after some among us swore we’d never watch that particular sport again. Our teams have since been undone by Jim Leyritz swinging and Aaron Rodgers flinging and Eugene Robinson getting arrested, and we have become fatalistic. We’re kind of like Red Sox Nation before Dave Roberts stole second in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS: We expect the absolute worst, and we’re seldom disappointed.
But here’s the difference. Even if the Red Sox went 85 years between World Series titles, folks in Boston still had the Celtics, who won 11 NBA titles in 13 years, and the Bruins, who won two Stanley Cups in three years, and the Patriots, who’d started on their run of Super Bowl victories. We’ve had only the Braves in 1995, and we’ve come to see that as the exception — the clincher was the function of a 1-0 one-hitter — that proves the rule.
America’s most miserable sports city? By Forbes’ definition, we absolutely are. But I would offer one quibble: We’re not the worst sports city. Our pro teams aren’t nearly awful, and our fervor for college football is unparalleled. So there’s that.
If/when another Atlanta pro team takes a title, our joyful deliverance will be unconfined. Until then, we’ll remain skeptical. We’re Atlanta, and it’s what we do.
By Mark Bradley