In the moments following the Atlanta Falcons’ heartbreaking Super Bowl LI loss, it was impossible to know how the city would react.
Tough losses in Atlanta’s past have been met with the same few steps of grief: disbelief, anger, frustration and eventually acceptance. Every time something like this happens, Atlantans shrug their shoulders, say something like, “Atlanta sports, amiright?” and move on.
But over the course of the past month, something different has happened in Atlanta. Like the Whos in Whoville after the Grinch swiped their Christmas, the city has rallied around the Falcons and sincerely pledged, “Yeah, but wait until next year.” On the Monday morning after the Super Bowl, I saw something strange: people were walking around in a daze, sure, but they were still wearing Falcons shirts and hats. They actually want to be a part of something that hurt them so much because they want to be there for the triumph.
Every day, we get closer to fitting the Northern fan’s mold of what a real sports town should be.
“The AJC actually just held a post-Super Bowl event for subscribers, where folks were able to hear expert analysis from Falcons writer Orlando Ledbetter, columnists Jeff Schultz and Mark Bradley, writer Michael Cunningham and videographer Ryon Horne, who were all part of our Super Bowl coverage team. I’d say the mood among our guests that night was hopeful and upbeat despite the heartbreak in Houston,” Jennifer Brett, a writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, told me in an email.
(Also read: A complete list of all the Falcons’ coaching changes)
After a gut-wrenching loss on a global stage where your team is essentially turned into a comedic meme, the defeat can seep into your city’s fiber. Take Cleveland, for example. If you watched ESPN’s “30 For 30” documentary, “Believeland,” there was a theme amid the heartbreak. The loser mentality of the city’s sports franchises was making its residents believe they were inferior to other cities. Business suffered, as did the psyche of Clevelanders. The downward spiral continued for decades.
This very easily could have been Atlanta. The Super Bowl loss was atrocious. Check. After the loss, the sun didn’t come out until that Thursday afternoon. Check.
But that’s about where the comparisons to Cleveland end. After a few days, the doom and gloom – literal gloom, thanks to the weather – dissipated, and the city picked itself up and pushed forward.
“To be an Atlanta sports fan is to have your heart ripped out, stomped on, ridiculed, made fun of, etc. Of that, we are used to. So, we will bounce back,” said Bob Rathbun, the TV play-by-play announcer for the Atlanta Hawks. “But what is of great interest to me is how Dan Quinn and the coaching staff handles what will be the biggest challenge of their professional lives. The Falcons are deep enough and young enough to be really good for a long time. To me, how they handle this offseason, from one of the greatest collapses in NFL history, will chart the course for this team for the next decade. I think DQ is up to the challenge.”
Perhaps that’s why the city has remained upbeat in the wake of an awful loss – there’s so much to anticipate. The Falcons are going to be good for years, the Braves are on the rise and both franchises are about to open new stadiums.
“I think for most of the fans, the majority they grew closer with each other, and they are and will use the loss as a rallying cry, because the city has taken on the personality of the head coach of our beloved Falcons, and that isn’t a good thing, but a great thing,” said Beau Morgan, producer for 92.9 The Game’s weekday morning show that features John Fricke and Hugh Douglas.
If that’s not enough, on Sunday, the city welcomes its newest professional franchise: Major League Soccer’s Atlanta United FC.
Soccer has tried and failed so many times in this city, but Atlanta United has already sold more than 30,000 season tickets for its inaugural season. If you compare that to 2016-17 numbers, only five English Premier League clubs sold more season tickets, and they’re pretty fond of soccer in that country.
Atlanta United is the first shot for the city’s millennials to really embrace an expansion team – and show it by spending their money. The last major pro sports franchise to set up shop in Atlanta was the Thrashers in 1999, and that was long before my generation had disposable income to spend on season tickets. Contrary to what you’ve heard, there is a healthy group of millennials who were raised in the A-T-L and have been aching to adopt a team as their own.
It appears that team could be Atlanta United.
In the month since the Super Bowl collapse, there’s been hope in a city that has hung its hat on its ability to recover. It might have taken a little longer than it took the Falcons to blow that 25-point lead, but the bounceback has been every bit as memorable as the meltdown.Follow @Sean_Breslin