No. 21 Best City to Be a Sports Fan: Atlanta
How much does where you live matter as a sports fan? The short answer is: It depends.
If you're an Alabama football fan, there's no better place to live than Tuscaloosa. If you're a Red Sox fan, there's no worse place to live than New York City.
But what if you were a free agent, so to speak? What if you loved sports, but didn't have a specific affiliation to any team? You're moving to a new city. What city would have the most to offer you as a sports fan? What city would give you the best overall experience?
That is what we're here to find out. We took 25 of the best writers from Bleacher Report and beyond to objectively look at their cities and come up with a ranking. To get a better understanding of the categories and grading criteria, click here.
Atlanta comes in at No. 21. Let's find out why.
Number of Teams/Events: 15/20
With the Atlanta Hawks, Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Thrashers, Georgia's capital city has each of the United States' four major sports covered. Well, it did. It doesn't anymore, as the Thrashers left town and became the Winnipeg Jets after True North Sports & Entertainment bought the franchise in 2011 and moved it north of the border to save it from the omnipresent financial and ownership struggles.
In addition to the three major teams, Atlanta boasts a WNBA squad, the Atlanta Dream, and will soon lay claim to an as-of-yet-unnamed team in MLS. Play won't begin for that soccer club until the 2017 season, though, so it doesn't count for our purposes.
But the sports landscape in Atlanta isn't just limited to the professional scene, nor is it contained by only leagues at the top levels of their respective sports.
The Gwinnett Gladiators (an ECHL hockey team) and Gwinnett Braves (Triple-A baseball) tend to draw in crowds, and the college scene is quite impressive. With Georgia Tech, the rising Georgia State and the University of Georgia (technically located in Athens but only an hour outside of the Atlanta perimeter and boasting a huge following throughout the city), there's not exactly any shortage of high-level collegiate play.
Throw in the famed Peachtree Road Race on the Fourth of July every year, the Chick-fil-A Bowl in the Georgia Dome (among many other events), an infrastructure that can support Olympic Games and Final Fours, the PGA's TOUR Championship at East Lake Golf Club and the races held at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and no one lacks for teams and events in the city.
Success of Teams in the Last 5 Years: 14/20
Focusing on the three major professional teams, there hasn't been much elite play.
While the Braves thoroughly dominated the National League throughout the 1990s and early 2000s (until the playoffs, save for the 1995 World Series title, which remains the most recent championship for the major teams in Atlanta), they've advanced to the postseason only three times in the past five years. Of those appearances, none saw the team get past the NLDS.
Though the Falcons have been consistently above average until last season's 4-12 collapse, they've won only a single playoff game in the past five years. That came in the 2012-13 divisional playoffs against the Seattle Seahawks, but the run quickly ended at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers.
The Hawks are in a similar boat. Though Al Horford and Co. have advanced to the playoffs each of the past five seasons, they've never done anything more than win a first-round matchup. That might have changed this past year, but a Game 6 lead was blown against the top-seeded Indiana Pacers and put a premature end to a potential run.
There's a reason Atlanta fans have come to expect things to go wrong at the worst possible time. Regular-season excellence is expected. Postseason success is a dream, but it's almost widely acknowledged as one of the pipe variety.
Each of the major sports is mired in mediocrity, though the collegiate teams tend to do extremely well. Georgia Tech advanced to the NCAA tournament as recently as 2010, and UGA football is always competitive, even if it seems to perennially underachieve.
The most successful team, though, would be the Dream.
Led by Angel McCoughtry, the WNBA representatives have made the playoffs each of the past five seasons and advanced to the WNBA Finals three times, losing to the Seattle Storm once and Minnesota Lynx twice.
Turner Field is a sentimental favorite of the Atlanta crowd, but because the location was so prohibitive to solid attendance figures, the Braves will soon begin playing in an arena farther north in Cobb County. There's a large outcry about that in some circles, but it's not because The Ted, which opened in 1996, has any distinguishing features, incredible food or technological advancements.
The Hawks play in Philips Arena, which is pretty much right in the middle of the pack. In fact, I ranked it 18th among the NBA's 30 arenas heading into the 2013-14 campaign, and there's no reason to change that now. It's an old and tired building on the inside, but the aesthetic appeal—with the columns spelling out "Atlanta"—is quite impressive.
The Georgia Dome is the gem of the Atlanta scene. Easily accessible on the MARTA lines and playing host to plenty of different teams and events throughout the year, it's always loud and exciting under the dome.
Then again, much like the other stadiums in Atlanta, it's still relatively mediocre. It's a gem by Atlanta standards, not national ones. Basically, there's a reason Arthur Blank is trying to build a state-of-the-art stadium in the near future.
Fan Passion: 5/10
Sometimes it seems as though you're not allowed to avoid picking sides between the Yellow Jackets and the Bulldogs. Of course, those are the two teams that tend to draw the most passion from fans, particularly whenever there's a football showdown looming between the two stylistically different squads.
As for the pro sports, Atlanta natives revel in the success of their teams but don't tend to fill up the stadiums. In many ways, front-runners rule the roost, filling up stadiums only when the team is peaking and often failing to do so even then.
The Braves couldn't sell out all of their postseason games during the past few seasons, and the Falcons are in the same boat even when they're winning. Diehard Braves fans are some of the most loyal and passionate ones in professional sports, but they aren't always easy to find and can often be lost in the crowd of fair-weather supporters.
And the Hawks...
Go to Philips Arena and you're more likely to hear MVP chants for an opposing player than anything else. Sold-out games are rarities, and the fanbase deserves its lackluster reputation. In my travels around the country, I can't tell you how many times I've explained I support the Hawks just to hear, "Oh, Hawks fans exist?" in reply.
At times, it seems to be a fair question.
General Fan Experience: 10/15
In Atlanta, your experience as a fan depends heavily on what you want to get out of your sports ventures.
If you're looking to find a cheap ticket, you're in luck. The upper decks of Turner Field have extremely low prices, and it's almost always possible to find a Hawks ticket in the top of The Highlight Factory that won't set you back whatsoever. On top of that, public transportation is quite easy to use and cost-effective, regardless of which stadium you're trying to journey to.
However, you're not going to find yourself surrounded by super-passionate fanatics.
Opposing teams tend to have a solid presence in Atlanta arenas, and the fans from Atlanta who attend games aren't always as vocal as they could be—unless they're doing the infamous Tomahawk Chop, of course, a ritual that's loved in Hotlanta and despised virtually everywhere else.
Outside of the stadiums, there are plenty of places to watch games while surrounded by other lovers of your team. The bar scene doesn't stand out, especially in Midtown, but you can usually find a location with a nice buzz about it. Underground Atlanta's decline and fall from grace is unfortunately no longer allowing it to contribute positively.
Right around the college campuses, though, you can become a part of rowdiness if you so desire. There's no shortage of bars and restaurants overflowing with televisions, even if you want to do something as simple as hang out at the country's first Mellow Mushroom and grab some pizza with the game on in the background.
Blackouts really don't happen in Atlanta, much to the pleasure of everyone who's not willing to venture out and help fill up the stadiums with hometown support. Fox Sports South tends to cover just about every game for the Braves and Hawks, and you're never going to have trouble finding coverage of the Falcons.
As for the announcers, it's a mixed bag.
Joe Simpson has put in over two decades calling games for the Braves, and he's one of the best in the business if you can overlook the massive homerism. Chip Caray may be related to Harry, he of Chicago Cubs legend, but he's often muted or tuned out. The rest of the baseball crew usually does an excellent job providing insightful and entertaining coverage, especially when Tom Glavine and John Smoltz are making guest appearances.
It's hard to find bigger hometown supporters than the Hawks' broadcast team of Bob Rathbun and Dominique Wilkins, but they're also endearing to us Atlantans. 'Nique is a massive homer who sometimes bumbles his way through, but Rathbun is a consummate professional capable of carrying the broadcast.
Star Power: 5/10
The teams of the past have had superstars.
When Michael Vick was leading the Falcons and Chipper Jones was swinging a hot bat in The Ted, there was no shortage of star power in the city. But things have taken a turn for the worse. Now, it's hard to pinpoint the biggest names inside I-285.
Freddie Freeman? Matt Ryan? Al Horford? Julio Jones?
Angel McCoughtry may well be the city's biggest star in her respective sport, though the WNBA has such a limited following—no disrespect intended—that it's hard to consider even her a true superstar.
All in all, the Atlanta teams boast a collection of above-average players, but they're usually fairly nondescript personalities. There aren't standouts who are going to fill stadiums in other towns, not to the extent that players like Vick did in the early 2000s.
Ryan is close to that status, and Julio Jones can certainly get there in the future, but not yet. Though Freeman did get into the All-Star Game by winning the final vote last year, indicating some nationwide appeal, he's still not reached superstar levels.
When was the last time you saw an Atlanta athlete on the cover of a video game? When have you seen one in a national commercial?
Atlanta has always been a fairly strong sporting town, even if the city hasn't piled up too many titles.
Tech and the Dawgs enjoy one of the better rivalries in college sports, and they've each collected a number of accomplishments and accolades over the years. Herschel Walker, anyone?
In the professional world, it's been all about the Braves for a while. That run of dominance in the 1990s was absolutely incredible, resulting in playoff appearance after playoff appearance. Sure, the 1995 title was the only one earned during the run, but Atlanta still symbolized consistent excellence for MLB teams back then.
Since moving to Atlanta in 1968, the Hawks haven't won a title, and they went through a postseason dry spell in the early 2000s. But there are still memorable players who helped make basketball popular in the city. Dominique Wilkins was one of the most entertaining players of all time, and you can still see those throwback jerseys with the Pacman logo whenever you step into Philips Arena.
As for the Falcons, they've only advanced to one Super Bowl (a 1998 loss to John Elway's Denver Broncos), and they have a history spotted with occasional playoff runs. But still, there's been no shortage of big names coming through Atlanta, led by Vick before legal and ethical trouble caught up with him.
It's hard to call the history of Atlanta sports a storied one, but it's by no means something to complain about, even if fans have gotten used to expecting the worst over the past few seasons.
Final Tally: 65/100
Does Atlanta stand out as a sports city? Not particularly, and that's a statement that applies in both positive and negative fashion.
Though there's plenty to keep fans entertained and a fairly nice set of stadiums, championships just aren't expected—or earned—in Hotlanta. Regular-season success is the standard, but most teams end up being mediocre for far too long, hindered by the lack of appeal to free agents in most major sports.
At least everything appears to be trending up at the moment.
The Falcons look set to rebound from last season's disaster, general manager Danny Ferry has the Hawks on the rise (especially in a weak Eastern Conference) and the Braves boast an impressive core of young hitters and pitchers. With the MLS team set to arrive in only a few years, there's a chance the ATL increases its reputation further in the not-too-distant future.
Plus, we all know that Atlanta will always be the city where the playas play.
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