- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2003

Atlanta long has been known as “The City Too Busy To Hate.” In recent years, it’s also been the city too busy to care about its pro sports teams.

Both the Thrashers (NHL) and Hawks (NBA) have spent the last two seasons as the second or third worst home draws in their respective leagues. The Falcons easily were the NFL’s second-worst team in attendance in 2000 and 2001, beating only the pitiful Arizona Cardinals. Even the mighty Braves’ attendance has plummeted by more than 35 percent since Turner Field opened in 1997.

However, the Falcons now are not only rapidly changing Atlanta’s reputation as one of America’s worst pro sports towns but are becoming one of the NFL’s marquee teams in breathtaking fashion.

The Falcons’ — fueled by the energy of dynamic quarterback Mike Vick and new owner Arthur Blank — began their rise a year ago, just months after Blank completed his $545million purchase of the club. The Falcons turned around a 1-3 start to go 9-6-1, make the playoffs for the first time in four years, and delivered the Green Bay Packers their first playoff loss at Lambeau Field. Home attendance jumped 27 percent to 68,871, 11th best in the NFL.

Now the Falcons’ resurgence is in full flight. Season tickets for 2003 have sold out at the Georgia Dome for just the second time in franchise history, the other occurrence dating to 1981 and the high-octane club led by Steve Bartkowski and William Andrews. Even after the “sold out” sign was posted, orders kept coming in, and a season ticket waiting list of more than 3,000 names now exists.

A new jersey design, introduced in April, is poised to become one of the league’s top sellers, and already is in high demand for use in film and TV projects and music videos. And ESPN, ABC, CBS and Fox will combine to put the Falcons on national TV six times this season.

“When we came in, we did not have a sports background,” said Dick Sullivan, Falcons executive vice president for marketing. Blank is co-founder of the Home Depot, and Sullivan was senior vice president of marketing at the retail chain. “So the first and most basic thing we did was listen to the fans and the players, and what we heard was a whole variety of reasons why the Falcons brand wasn’t resonating in Atlanta. Winning was only part of it. The comments ran the entire gamut to ticket pricing to game-day experience, parking and traffic. They quite plainly asked for an organization that cared about them.

“We spent the summer [of 2002] putting together a plan to respond to all of that, and also bring in some of the Home Depot and branding experiences we had. We’re still on our way through that, and the results are beginning to show,” Sullivan said.

The Washington Redskins will play at Atlanta on Sept.14, which should bring out the legion of Steve Spurrier fans still living in the deep South.

Even with Atlanta having more of a fan focus toward NASCAR and college sports, the Falcons’ historic struggles have been far more self-inflicted than market driven. The club never has had consecutive winning seasons. And under the leadership of former owners Rankin Smith, a prominent insurance executive, and his son Taylor, both marketing and aggressive roster development were minimal, with the notable exception of a 2001 trade with San Diego that gave Atlanta the No.1 draft pick to use for Vick.

If ownership didn’t openly care, Falcon fans wondered, why should we? So it came as no surprise that 16 of the last 20 home games before Blank purchased the club were blacked out locally.

Blank and Sullivan quickly changed all that by working down the long list of demands and needs provided to them, but always with an emphasis on building fan and player relationships rather than solely on wins and ticket sales. The presence of Vick, who Sullivan likens to Michael Jordan in his early 1990s prime, greased the wheels further.

By inheriting one of the NFL’s smallest season ticket bases, Blank and his staff literally had to start over to build a successful, NFL-level fan base. But the current season ticket holders are at once a group that does not remember most of the franchise’s dark days, and comprises the largest percentage of fans aged 18 to 49 of any NFL team. That advertiser-coveted young fan base in turn has helped the Falcons boost sponsorship sales.

“What’s happened with [the Falcons] has been nothing short of awesome,” said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports industry consultant who frequently works with NFL teams. “It shows how much impact a great, committed owner and a true marquee player can have.

“It’s not as if this franchise was in absolutely terrible shape — it had been to the Super Bowl just a few years ago. But a spark was really needed, and that’s now happening.”

The Falcons’ story is similar to that of the Washington Capitals, who needed to rebuild almost from scratch after the disinterested ownership of Abe Pollin. Blank and Sullivan even consulted Caps owner Ted Leonsis for his experiences on returning customer service and modern marketing to the forefront of sports team operations.

But unlike Leonsis — who has not won a playoff series as Caps owner and is now showing frustration with the franchise’s slowed progression on and off the ice — the Falcons also have seen first-hand the potent fuel of advancing in the playoffs even once.

“Winning is only one element of building a successful brand,” Sullivan said. “It is no doubt important, though, and we’re clearly focused now on taking another step. And that starts with knocking off the defending champions [Tampa Bay] and winning a division title.”

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