Atlanta--The setting sunlight washes over streets jam-packed with rush hour traffic, painting the southern skyline and bathing the city and its citizens in rays of reds, pinks and yellows as it retreats behind a landscape of skyscrapers. The crowded roads have been virtually impassable for the last hour and will be for the next several, as those who work in the city combat its infamous traffic in route to their homes and families. Yet as most of the lots and parking decks throughout the city of commuters begins to empty, one of them begins to fill.
At the corner of Northside and Ivan Allan, Seth Brentley parks his white SUV and begins the familiar process of unloading the necessary essentials required for a successful tailgate. Out first comes the canopy—a four-legged tent about seven feet high and completely covered in red and black. It’s followed quickly by a table and a handful of folding chairs—each of them also adorned in red and black, as well as coolers, a grill and the familiar corn hole set, a popular tailgating game that involves throwing beanbags. Brentley is aided by a handful of participants including his wife and son, each of them smiling and trading good-natured barbs as they work with a quick efficiency to suggest that they’ve done this a hundred times before. Each member of the tailgate is dressed to match the canopy and chairs, some of them in jerseys and all of them sporting the familiar color combination.
For those less interested in burgers, beer and football, grilling out in an urban parking lot on a Thursday afternoon in September might seem like an odd endeavor. For Brentley and his tailgating companions, doing anything else is out of the question.
“We’re here every home game, this same lot,” Brentley says. “We’ve been doing this since before the dome opened and we’ll be doing it at the new stadium too.”
“Since before the dome opened” is actually a bit of an understatement. Brentley and his friends have been following the Atlanta Falcons longer than many of the franchise’s fans have been alive.
“I’ve been a fan since oh, fourth grade, so about 1969,” Brentley says, laughing. “In high school that progressed into some of my friends and I going to the games as a thing to do, then that progressed into a full time love affair. I guess you could say obsession.”
Obsession—perhaps to some it may seem too dramatic of a word to apply to something as seemingly trivial as a game played with a ball on a grassy field. Yet Americans love few things as passionately as we love our football. According to a report released by the Green Bay Packers, the NFL grossed over $6 billion in 2013. That’s enough money to provide a year’s worth of health insurance for about one and a half million people—spent instead on large men in brightly-colored uniforms crashing into one another for 60 minutes at a time. So, one might be inclined to ask, why do we do it?
“I think Americans love football because it kind of represents some of those things we love about our country,” Brentley says as he struggles with a bag of charcoal. With the unpacking finished, the next phase of the ritual has begun, and soon yellow flames lick up between the grates of a rugged-looking grill that may have seen one too many autumns. “Teamwork, overcoming adversity, fighting against the odds. It’s the best game there is,” he says.
“The best game there is”—it’s difficult, in America at least, to argue against that. Few sports, it seems, captivate and encapsulate cities as fully and with such rabid devotion as football. To what lengths do people go to watch their beloved teams? The Green Bay Packers tell interested fans that the average waiting list for season tickets is 30 year. Dallas Cowboys season ticket holders now must first purchase a “personal seat license” which then grants them the ability to buy their seats. Not to worry though, the Cowboys offer a “mortgage” for PSL’s of up to a 30-year period.
So what of our Atlanta Falcons? How does our local franchise measure on the scales of fanatical devotion and 30-year waits for seats? The short answer is not good.
“I think we have a small number of home town fans that support the team no matter how they’re doing, and then because Atlanta’s such a transient city there’s a whole bunch of fair-weather fans that follow the team when they do well, and then find something else to do when they don’t do well,” Brentley says, as one-by-one he gingerly places chunks of ground beef upon the smoking grill. He pauses to shake his head with a look of disgust. “A lot of people also have a second team that they’ll support over the Falcons when they come to town. I’ve seen it and heard it a million times.”
Transient city, fair-weather fans—these are terms that have become somewhat familiar to the loyal few who follow the Falcons. Yet is the “shallow” label a warranted accolade for the Atlanta fan base? Or is this, like so many other things in the world of sporting lore, exaggerated? At the very least, there is evidence supporting it.
In 2013, students at Emory University in Atlanta conducted a study testing the “loyalty” of each of the 32 NFL fan bases. The students measured tickets sales, factoring in variables such as win/loss records, average incomes, populations and so forth, the idea being to determine which fan bases supported their respective teams regardless of circumstance. Not surprisingly, names like the Cowboys, the Patriots and the Jets fill out the top three. The Falcons’ long-time division rival, the New Orleans Saints, ranks in at number four. The Falcons, however, rank second to last.
"This is one of the most fragile fan bases, mentally, in the country," said 680 the Fan talk show host John Kincade in an article for Yahoo Sports. "Not just the Falcons, Atlanta as a whole. There's a dark cloud, an insecurity, a feeling that the national media doesn't love us. Every time the fans have bought in, Lucy has moved the football. It's scarred this community."
Given the circumstances, one can probably understand. Atlanta, a city built upon uprooted Native American settlements and burnt to the ground by Sherman, boasts both the world’s busiest airport and one of the faster-growing populations in the United States. In the 1990’s alone, Georgia’s population increased by 26 percent according to nationalatlas.gov.
From a sporting standpoint, Atlanta’s had it rough. In 158 seasons of professional sports franchises, Atlanta has exactly one championship, courtesy of the 1995 Braves. The Hawks have yet to make it to a conference finals. Atlanta has also lost not one, but two professional hockey franchises to disinterest and the great white north—the Flames in 1980 and the Thrashers in 2011. Then there’s the Falcons.
The grill cooling and smells of freshly grilled burgers wafting around the warm evening air, Brentely and his gang laugh and trade stories of Falcons-related commiseration in between hefty bites of burger.
“Yeah there’s definitely been a lot of heartbreakers,” he says. “I’ll never forget 1980, nor will I ever forgive the Cowboys for that game. If ever we should have won a Super Bowl, that might have been it.” Brentley takes a brief pause from his plate, perhaps reliving the painful fourth-quarter collapse and division round loss. “Then of course there was 2012 right here,” he says with a smile. “Part of being a Falcons fan.”
The Atlanta Falcons played their first snap in 1966 as an expansion team. Six years later they managed their first winning season. It took them 12 years to make the playoffs. Prior to 2009, they had never experienced consecutive winning seasons. The one Super Bowl appearance, a 34-19 blowout at the hands of the Denver Broncos, took 33 years.
Put simply, with a record of 325 wins, 428 losses and 6 ties, the Falcons aren’t exactly the NFL’s winningest franchise. Compiled with the large number of immigrants, the general futility surrounding the city’s other franchises, and the SEC/College football dominated region, the end result seems to be a fan base that one couldn’t quite label “diehard.” If one still needed evidence to support the poor perception of the Falcons “faithful,” look no further than the NFL record books. The Falcons hold the record for most no-shows in a single game, with 40,202 on a miserably cold day at the end of the 1974 season.
With the burgers digesting, the beer drank and the grill extinguished, Brentley’s gang of tailgaters begin the process of packing up—chairs, trash and coolers vanishing as quickly and efficiently as they’d appeared. Johnny Vetrano, a New Jersey Native sporting a Matt Ryan jersey, gathers beanbags and disassembles the cornhole set.
“It’s my second year as a season-ticket holder and my first with this group,” Vetrano says. “Well I’m originally from New Jersey and growing up my family always supported the Giants, but when we moved down here I just sort of started following the home team too.”
Interestingly enough, the Falcons will play the Giants in week five of the current season. When asked who he would be supporting, Vetrano gives a wry smile.
In spite of its shaky history, reason to hope may yet exist for the infamous Falcons fan base. Since the beginning of the Arthur Blank/Mike Smith/Thomas Dimitrov era, the long-downtrodden franchise has enjoyed the longest sustained period of success in franchise history. Accordingly, season tickets have sold at a faster rate than ever before, even in spite of increasing prices and the economic recession. The Falcons have made playoff appearances in four out of their last six seasons, and posted winning records in five.
“If Mr. Blank continues to do what he’s doing and as successful as he’s been in other operations, the fan base will continue to grow and become more loyal,” Brentley says. “After last year’s season, you have a bad year and a fan base that’s not quite converted yet goes away. After years of winning and success and of course a couple Super Bowls would be nice, we’ll have that diehard fan base that would stick around, because they know that even in a down year, next year can be a good one. Right now they’re not sure.”
"If the Falcons were to win a Super Bowl, they could harvest an entire generation of children who would grow up to be season ticket-holders," Kincade said. "Atlanta loves nothing more than to jump on a bandwagon, whether it's a new restaurant, a new bar, or a sports team. There's really a golden opportunity at hand here."
For new fans, and there will always be new fans when a team is winning, the distant memory of the hapless decades of losing may be hard to fathom. For other, older fans, it’s all simply “part of being a Falcons fan.” With the SUV fully packed and tickets in hands, Brentley and his gang are ready to begin the long, familiar trek down Northside drive. Looking out across the sea of red-clad fans flocking to a Georgia Dome partially hidden in twilight, Brentley lets out a sigh.
“Here we go again,” he says.
Atlanta fans tailgate before the Falcons host the Buccaneers on Thursday, September 18th 2014. Lots like this one on Northside drive are a popular setting for pregame activities.