Marketing Victories: Building the Atlanta United FC Brand from the Ground-Up
2017 marks the inaugural year of Atlanta’s newest sports franchise, Atlanta United FC. The city is completely enamored with the new team, as it smashes records on and off the field in its first year of existence. But all of this success didn’t happen overnight. It took a deliberate and dedicated effort over several years to ensure such a successful launch.
Establishing a Quality Product
The first step in any business venture is to first develop a quality product. This team was built from scratch. And the success they’ve enjoyed on the field started from the top making good decision after good decision.
Arthur Blank, or as his adoring fans call him, “Uncle Arthur,” is most well known for being the owner of the Atlanta Falcons and co-founder of The Home Depot. In 2014, he won a bid to bring a Major League Soccer team to Atlanta and become the owner of Atlanta United FC. Blank promptly made two excellent hires to begin his road to success: President, Darren Eales (former executive director at Tottenham Hotspur FC, a top European club) and Technical Director, Carlos Bocanegra (a well-known, former captain of the United States National Team). The three men then went out on a search for a coach and man, did they find a good one – Gerardo “Tata” Martino (former head coach of top world teams such as Barcelona and Argentina’s national team). These hires gave the team instant credibility in the soccer world and made Atlanta an attractive destination for young up-and-coming stars eager to learn from some of soccer’s greatest minds. And come they did. Young South American stars Miguel Almirón, Josef Martinez, Yamil Asad, along with league veteran Michael Parkhurst and US National Team goalkeeper Brad Guzan – started shaping up the team. Players from all over the world came to join the club. And the design of the team was a fast-paced, goal-scoring, attacking team – an exciting brand to get the new fans invested.
Engaging the Audience
Atlanta is notorious in the sports world for having slow-to-adopt, fair-weather fans. The Atlanta United FC executives knew that to buck that trend, they would have to engage the city and its residents to generate awareness and create a solid, loyal fan base. So, rather than deciding what they wanted the club to look like and forcing it upon the audience to accept (or reject), they opted to literally and simply ask the fans what they wanted – then deliver.
Creating the Brand
It started with the name. What should we call this new franchise? – Let’s ask the fans. Via social media and online polling, fans were asked to submit and vote on their favorite name for the new team. It was a multi-week process, but the fans had spoken: Atlanta United FC. Now, I’m not very partial to the name personally. I think “United” is a little over-played and boringly safe. However, in a city as diverse as Atlanta, the word packs extra punch. And, I respect the heck out of the front office for listening to the voice of the people. Therefore, I can live with it, nay, love it.
Turning the name into a true brand, they infused meaning into every purposeful aspect of their new look and logo, which they revealed in this video:
Following the logo video, ATL UTD continued to rollout big, exciting reveals about the new team. They hosted a huge kit (jersey) unveiling at The Tabernacle (a local concert venue) that included a live online stream and post-reveal concert for fans in attendance. The team also paid huge respect to its growing fan base by reserving the #17 for the fans and the city of Atlanta. Often, a team may retire the jersey number of a beloved former player so that no player in the future can wear that number as sign of respect. Before the very first kickoff, ATL UTD decided to pay this respect to their supporters so that only fans would be able to don the number 17 representing the year of the inaugural season.
Golden Spike – The city of Atlanta got its start as a railway hub connecting the Southeastern United States. The team expanded on that history to create a pre-game and post-game tradition unique to the city. At the beginning of each game, a local celebrity hammers in a giant golden spike that is autographed by the players before the game. This tradition is a fun way to get the crowd going and excited for the game and is a special way to tie Atlanta’s history to its current pop-culture icons. After the game, an actual-sized golden railroad spike is hammered in by the player of the match.
Throughout the months leading up to the team’s first season, ATL UTD went out of their way to engage their audience and continued to create buzz:
Flag Friday – The team created multiple flag scavenger hunts where they gave out hundreds of free ATL UTD flags to fans throughout the city who were able to decipher their locations from clues on social media. This was a fun and exciting way to engage with the fans and increase social media followers.
SurPRIZES – The team also has driven around town, giving prizes to people with ATL UTD flags hanging at their homes.
Local Soccer Community Outreach – The team has gotten local clubs involved developing a true to Atlanta player development academy – creating a pipeline of future talent for the club.
MARTA Five Points station soccer field – ATL UTD created a new soccer field in the center hub of Atlanta’s metro lines. This is the first field of its kind in the world and has been an immediate success by providing the inner city with immediate and welcoming access to the beautiful game.
Supporters Groups – Unique to soccer, supporters groups live and breathe the team and are as much a part of the club as the players. Atlanta already has some of the best in its young existence. Terminus Legion, Footie Mob, Resurgence and Faction create a loud, passionate atmosphere inside and outside of the stadium. The team has fully embraced these groups, providing them with special access to the team – returning the love back to the fans.
Take a look at this video made by Major League Soccer that highlights the creation of Atlanta United FC’s franchise and how they did it.
Putting the Customer First (even when things go wrong)
As with almost every product launch, things inevitably don’t go exactly to plan. As the 2017 MLS season rapidly approached, it was clear that the construction of the team’s home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, would not be ready in time for the first game. In fact, it wouldn’t be ready until the second half of the season. Making the best of what could have been a bad situation, the team made historic Bobby Dodd Stadium (the home of Georgia Tech football) the temporary home for the opening months of March-August. While the lack of a flashy, brand new stadium was disappointing, the atmosphere at Bobby Dodd did not suffer AT ALL. The team sold out every single game they played there and the feeling was electric – creating a level of energy that only made the ultimate opening of the new stadium all the more thrilling.
The team also made sure to take care of their season ticket holders expecting to be at the new stadium. Discounts at Bobby Dodd, free additional tickets in the new stadium and money towards merchandise were just a few of the perks that inaugural season ticket holders received. The team even brought those inaugural ticket holders into the ATL UTD brand, naming them “Founding Members.” By making sure that customers were treated right in an unfair circumstance, the team made creative choices that not only avoided a PR nightmare, but strengthened the positive feeling people were developing for the team, as well.
In the new MBS stadium, another fan-first venture has been realized: affordable concessions! $2 food items, $2 sodas with unlimited refills, $5 beers, etc. This new philosophy of fan-first, family-friendly pricing has received national coverage because of its departure from the norm at stadiums around the country that serve their items at outrageous prices. The idea is with the affordable prices, fans are more inclined to arrive early, stay late and eat/drink more at the stadium. And it has definitely worked. Here’s to hoping this trend catches-on!
Successes to Date
Atlanta is already one of the top-scoring teams in the league and has shattered every attendance record in the books (despite being temporarily displaced into Bobby Dodd Stadium for the majority of the season). This includes the largest crowd EVER for a single match with 70,425 fans on September 16, breaking a 21 year-old record. At season’s end, they will also inevitably hold the record for largest cumulative attendance for an entire season. Additionally, the club has already secured a playoff spot, making it one of just a few expansion teams in Major League Soccer history to make the playoffs in its first year of existence.
Atlanta United FC has truly set a new standard for launching a new a sports franchise, and we can apply many, if not all of these lessons to successful product launches and marketing initiatives across all industries. Unite and Conquer!
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