In its first season, Atlanta United FC broke records for attendance at U.S. soccer matches. In its second season, fans are still packing the stands.
Atlanta has a rich history of sports that has been historically dominated by college and professional football. But now that Atlanta has a professional soccer team, the sports culture in the city is shifting, said John Nelson, a senior correspondent and host for sports at Georgia Public Broadcasting. Nelson also co-hosts the podcast “Soccer Down Here.”
“When it comes to Atlanta United, what you’re looking at is the expectation of success and all of the trappings that come with it,” he said.
In the past few years, Atlanta sports teams have struggled. The Hawks had a terrible NBA season, the Falcons had a devastating Super Bowl meltdown last year, and the Braves have not been doing well in baseball either.
Soccer fans don’t think Atlanta United has that kind of baggage.
“What Atlanta United fans have done is taken the college football mentality of being a fan and they’ve transferred it to their soccer team,” Nelson said.
Atlanta United fans meet to tailgate before home games in an area near Mercedes-Benz Stadium called the Gulch. Before a May 2018 game against Sporting Kansas City, Michael Smith, a season ticket-holder from Watkinsville, Georgia joined the parking lot party with a friend.
“My favorite part is when I get to bring somebody new,” he said. “You get to experience this culture out here, of the tailgate. You get to experience the march, the stadium for the first time, the atmosphere of a soccer game. It’s all different and it’s electric and it’s addictive.”
Smith and other fans rave about the team’s attendance records for good reason. In its first season, Atlanta United led the league in attendance, averaging 48,200 people in the stands for home games, more than double the average MLS regular season attendance. At the end of its inaugural season, the team broke the record for the largest-ever MLS playoff crowd with 67,221 fans.
Meanwhile, the Hawks and the Braves have struggled to fill the seats at their games.
“I think it’s going to change the way the country sees Atlanta sports,” Smith said.
In the game on Wednesday against Sporting Kansas City, Atlanta United suffered a 2-0 loss. In the end, fans took their anger out on the referees and not their team.
This story originally appeared on NPR's NextGen Radio.