Week Two Summary: Atlanta

On Thursday, we wrapped up our Atlanta week with a great interview with Jason Kirk, the Regional Editor at SB Nation Atlanta. Jason helped fill us in on the pulse of the sports fans in the ATL, particularly the Braves, Falcons, Hawks, Thrashers, and the UGA Bulldog sports culture. We would like to thank Jason for his insight and time on Thursday. The link to the whole interview can be found at the bottom of this post, but here is a short summary of the interview:

Kirk asserts that the people of Atlanta are definitely sad to see the end of the very long Bobby Cox era at Turner Field, but are mostly optimistic about the future. In regards to new manager Fredi Gonzalez, Kirk gives two separate vibes in regards to how fans are seeing the new skipper. A fan coming from the first vibe would argue that Gonzalez is “just like Bobby Cox,” in that he is too much a disciple of Cox and some Braves had begun to tire of Cox’s “micro-management” towards the end of his tenure in Atlanta. A second vibe from Braves fans would also argue that Gonzalez is “just like Bobby Cox,” but that is a positive factor, as Cox was well-liked by players, and was responsible for many playoff successes in Atlanta. These similar arguments with very dissimilar reasoning represent the high emotions of all in seeing a dugout without Cox in it come spring training.

When asked about any potential for a Michael Vick “hangover” in Atlanta, Kirk confirms that Vick is still very much a story in Atlanta, but despite that, the fandom and spirit is by no means diminished for Falcons fans. Coming off a few solid recent seasons, particularly a 13-3 regular season in 2010-11 in which the Falcons claimed to not be taken seriously by the football world, Kirk stated that the fans are excited in Atlanta, but still recognize the gaping holes in the rosters which need to be filled in the off-season. Although every team obviously has weaknesses, the Falcons’ gaps, particularly in the offensive arena, were absolutely exposed in the playoff game against the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. That game came as an embarrassment to many in Atlanta, but given the obvious potential to rebuild and bolster the personnel in the off-season, Kirk asserts that “it’s time to start believing” in the Falcons now.

Although Atlanta had often been a big basketball town, considering the huge popularity of the NBA in the 1980’s, there is “no vibe about the Hawks,” according to Kirk. Atlanta fans recognize that the Hawks are often going to be decent, but they are not a big team to care about, even given the large numbers of basketball fans residing in the area. The Hawks’ problem is that they play with “no fire,” and are constantly operating in the shadow of geographic and divisional rivals in the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat.

When asked about the hockey vibe in Atlanta, Kirk immediately asserted that Atlanta is not a hockey town, but “is a college football town.” People have very little interest in hockey, and have essentially refused to buy into the hockey vibe, especially given the highs and lows of the other high profile franchises in the city. Just one day after our interview with Jason, we posted news regarding a potential move of the Thrashers back up to Canada. If this move goes through, it looks like Atlanta won’t even need to feign being a hockey town for much longer.

Unlike our city of the week last week, Washington DC, Atlanta has a largely focused and unified fan base around a college program, particularly the Georgia Bulldogs, especially when it is football season. Kirk gives that although the Dawgs were 6-7 in 2010, there was an “eerily high vibe” given a losing record from a perennially SEC powerhouse team. In the off-season, the Bulldogs are refocusing their notoriously formidable recruiting efforts, directing them mostly toward homegrown talent, which is customary in Athens. Given the fact that UGA plays in the SEC, which Kirk calls “the greatest league in any sport,” all games are competitive and spotlight some of the best players in the nation. “Nothing’s better,” Kirk claims.

We conducted another email interview this week, with this one spotlighting the input and perspective of a fan. Sam Daniels, a 2008 UGA graduate and member of the student booster club during his time at the school, spent a large majority of his college years organizing pep rallies, large-scale tailgate parties, and devising obnoxious cheers to distract and belittle the visiting teams. He called the Georgia fan culture “a contagious and completely tradition-based way of life.” Football games are “the be all and end all of social life in Athens,” Daniels asserts. “We eat, sleep, breathe, drink, talk, and can’t ever get enough of the Bulldogs. Yeah, we care about the Braves when it comes time for baseball, but college football is the real deal. For most of us, our older siblings did what we did, and our parents before us. Gameday tailgate parties at the crack of dawn; that this is how it has always been done here. And we would not trade it for the world. Being a Dawg is who we are, forever.”

Given the varied success levels of the Atlanta sports franchises, as well as the added variable of the highly popular Georgia football team, we have two separate trends to observe and comment on, given our research and interviews from this week.

The first trend in Atlanta involves the passion and hype generated from the success of homegrown talent, whether it is in the form of local boys doing well for the Bulldogs football team, or locals bridging the gap into the professional realm, exemplified perfectly by the Braves’ Jason Heyward, whose fantastic rookie season put all eyes on the homegrown talent that the Braves managed to keep in the area. Fishing for homegrown talent is the modus operandi of many teams, and utilizing the Bulldogs as a case study, it works. Seeing a local kid blossom into a star under the watch of the people who he grew up around not only puts fans in the seats (not that the UGA football program needs help doing that), but it also perpetuates a cycle of young children looking to these local stars as heroes and role models. It is absolutely a unifying factor in sports culture, and an ever present dynamic in Atlanta life.

The second trend in Atlanta, as we discussed in length in both our HFA Radio show and podcast interview with Jason Kirk, involves the concept that most, if not all, of the Atlanta teams seem to be operating in the shadows of ghosts of seasons past. This looks very different for each team, with the new Braves team playing in the shadow of the Bobby Cox era in the upcoming season, the Thrashers playing in an attempt to fill the shoes left in Kovalchuk’s departure, or the Falcons playing in the shadow of the Michael Vick debacle. Seeing a long tenured manager of a team retire, or saying goodbye to a staple player of a successful franchise, either on good or bad terms, cannot possibly bode well for the well-being and outlook of the fans in that city. Atlanta has seen sports success in a number of venues, but when chapters of those notable eras come to a very abrupt or definitive end, it leaves one feeling confused, down, and truly wondering “What’s Next?” Shadows come quickly in the life and times of a sports fan, and quite often, they last for a good amount of time. The histories of the various Atlanta franchises have left fans with a hangover…not necessary out of hope, but absolutely wondering “Hey! What’s next?” This question is one that is a heavily deciding factor in the dictated sports pulse in the ATL.
Bye-bye, Bobby. Falcons making a statement in the regular season. Hawks mediocre at best, yet again. Goodbye to hockey in Atlanta? And a fresh start for the boys in Athens come August.

So, what’s next?


About Home Field Advantage
We are two senior Sports Communication majors at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. We have launched this blog as part of our senior year capping project, with the goal of creating a comparative analysis and multimedia approach to the differing sports cultures in America.

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