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When you think about sports in the South, you probably think football, not soccer. Well, think again. Tomorrow's Major League Soccer championship is between the Portland Timbers and Atlanta United. The Georgia team is only in its second season, but it's already setting a new standard for professional soccer attendance. As Emma Hurt from member station WABE reports, that success is no accident.
EMMA HURT, BYLINE: On a Saturday in June, the world's most-attended soccer game wasn't at the World Cup. It was in Atlanta. That might sound surprising but not to those who go to Atlanta United games and often fill a 72,000-seat stadium. Last week, thousands showed up at a watch party to cheer the team playing a semifinal game in New York.
UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS FANS: (Chanting) We are the A from way down South, and we are here, rowdy and proud. Sha-la-la-la (ph), sha-la-la-la.
HURT: The fan energy was electric.
UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS FAN: I actually believe in this team. I think we're going to go all the way. It's going to be awesome.
HURT: And before the team even left the field that night, the championship game happening in Atlanta tomorrow sold out. Again, that's about 72,000 people. Keep in mind the average attendance of an American pro soccer game is more like 22,000. Atlanta United's numbers are better than some pro football crowds.
But how? Well, the games are fun. Atlanta United's owner, Arthur Blank, also owns the Falcons and opened a brand-new stadium for the two teams last year. But United games don't feel like they're in a football stadium. All the signage is digital. There's barely a trace of the Falcons on a soccer day. Catie Griggs, who runs business operations for United, says that was a deliberate business decision.
CATIE GRIGGS: We have the ability to truly shift the physical infrastructure of the stadium to accommodate a different sport in a way that is meaningful and authentic and not simply an afterthought.
HURT: It showed fans that soccer was a priority. Another business decision that's building goodwill - cheap concessions. Hotdogs are $2. At the baseball stadium across town, they're $6.50. And then there's the mechanics of the team. Blank hired management with global soccer pedigrees who in turn attracted talented, young players. But OK, a fun stadium and good players who are winning games - still, where are all these southern fans coming from? Matt Stigall started a petition back in 2011 to bring pro soccer to Atlanta, and even he is surprised.
MATT STIGALL: I was never expecting 70,000 people selling out every game, breaking records upon records and really setting a new standard for the league and having all eyes of the world look and be like, holy crap, Atlanta's a soccer town.
HURT: One reason, he says, is Atlanta United has a clean soccer slate to take advantage of.
STIGALL: There's a lot of people that I know that moved to Atlanta recently, brought all their original teams in the other sports, whether it's NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, the team that their families have been fans of for generations. They don't have a soccer team.
HURT: Plus there's the general rise in American soccer popularity. Soccer TV viewership is up while football's is shrinking. Soccer games don't stop for commercial breaks, and the games are simply shorter. These are all reasons for the trend to continue, says Matt Doyle, a columnist for MLS.
MATT DOYLE: Thirty-five years ago when I was growing up, Major League Baseball was the undisputed number-one sport among all age groups.
HURT: But today, baseball is number three behind basketball and football. And soccer is soon expected to move into third place ahead of baseball. Here's Griggs again with the team.
GRIGGS: It's a serendipitous collision of time, opportunity, market where fundamentally our role is to not screw it up.
HURT: But Atlanta sports fans have a reputation to disprove - that they only support teams when they're winning. The city's basketball, baseball and even football teams are well-aware of that. No one knows if the stereotype will hold true here until Atlanta United starts losing. For NPR News, I'm Emma Hurt in Atlanta.
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