What Atlanta can teach Tepper about soccer

Plus: Charlotte MLS team poised to take advantage of big real-estate tax break; Atrium expects $1B in profit this year; Truist tells off Truliant and says nobody should monopolize 'T-R-U'

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Analysis: It’s painful for Charlotte sports fans to admit it, but new MLS team should follow our rival’s example; luring ‘progressive’ and ‘urban’ crowds, fewer dudes in khakis

By Tim Whitmire

When David Tepper, the billionaire owner of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers announced the addition of a Major League Soccer franchise to his (and Charlotte’s) portfolio this week, he opened with a shot across the bow at Atlanta, the big brother of Sun Belt boomtowns against which Charlotte has measured itself for decades.

“There’s another city down the road to the west,” Tepper declared. “Charlotte is hot. We’re the hot city. Screw that other city!”

The sentiment seemed heartfelt, and ginning up a rivalry with Atlanta United FC is smart business. Although Atlanta seems destined to become a rival in soccer as it is in football and everything else, the smart play will be for Tepper and his new MLS team to mimic the moves that have made Atlanta United a huge success.

Strong competitor: If Charlotte has learned anything about Tepper in the 20 months since he purchased the Panthers and immediately began campaigning for an MLS team, it’s that he burns to be the best. In pro soccer, Atlanta is the best. In just three seasons in MLS, the team has been to the playoffs every year, has won one MLS Cup (the league title) and two other major competitions (the U.S. Open Cup and the Campeones Cup).

As impressive as United’s on-field accomplishments have been, they’re actually less noteworthy than what the team has achieved off the field. United has filled Mercedes-Benz Stadium, repeatedly setting records for single-game and average attendance and shooting to the top of the Forbes magazine list of estimated MLS franchise valuations ($500M). The team’s Five Stripes logo is seen all over town.

“Atlanta United games are the most branded, energetic and family-friendly sporting events in the city,” says Greg Parent, an Atlanta mediator who grew up in Gastonia. “Soccer is such a fast-paced and internationally beloved game, and the fans’ enthusiasm is contagious.” He describes himself as a casual fan and says his family has gotten so caught up in the team that they each own multiple “kits,” or versions of the team’s jersey.

Is Atlanta United FC destined to be an arch-rival? Or a shining example for Charlotte’s MLS team to imitate? It might be both. (Photo courtesy of Greg Parent.)

Prior to United’s 2017 launch, Atlanta’s reputation as a pro sports town was roughly this:

  • Apathetic front-runners

  • A bunch of transplants with stronger loyalty to their hometown teams than to any of the local squads

  • “Good seats still available for the Braves playoff game …”

  • A great (college) sports town

Sound familiar, Charlotte? Those aren’t the only parallels to the marketing landscape MLS faces here:

  • Co-ownership with an NFL team (Arthur Blank owns both United and the Falcons)

  • Co-tenancy in a large NFL stadium (prior to Atlanta entering the league, the MLS model for the entire 21st century had been for teams to play in relatively small, soccer-specific stadiums)

  • A market with no history of grassroots support or demand for professional soccer

While other recent expansion cities like Orlando, Cincinnati and Sacramento “earned” MLS membership through fierce support for minor league teams — similar to how Raleigh thinks it’s more deserving of MLS than Charlotte — the Atlanta United experience suggests a second potential path to MLS success and clearly paved the way for Tepper’s successful bid. 

Marketing soccer a ‘different animal’: But duplicating United’s success likely will involve creating a fan and rooting experience radically different from anything seen so far in Charlotte’s khakis-and-polo-shirt-clad pro sports history.

“Arthur Blank’s genius has been to embrace soccer as a completely different animal from football,” says Kirk S. Bowman, a professor at Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs who has studied soccer extensively and witnessed the United sensation firsthand.

Instead of hiring a marketer or an experienced NFL person to run his MLS team, Blank hired a soccer executive from Tottenham Hotspur, an English club, Bowman points out. Tepper has mirrored that move by hiring Tom Glick, an American who worked for Manchester City, and installing him as the point man for Charlotte’s MLS push. 

Numerous stories have documented how Atlanta United has built its audience “one pub crawl at a time,” enlisting young, diverse fans with a passion for international soccer and a global, cosmopolitan outlook. 

“We do have a large Latin community,” Bowman notes, “but games are not predominantly Latino. It is a totally mixed group: white, black, Latino, gay, lots of women, lots of young people.”

Musicians all-in: The team also reached into non-traditional sports communities. “One stroke of genius in Atlanta was involving the local arts scene in the roll out of the team,” Bowman adds. “The African-American music community is all-in on Atlanta United.”

The result: a diverse, intense, fan-driven atmosphere radically different from that typically seen at American pro sporting events, particularly in cities like Charlotte and Atlanta.

Charlotte’s MLS team seems to understand that generating enthusiasm is different from the NFL — and that Atlanta is the standard-bearer. Glick, speaking this week on WFNZ-AM’s “The Mac Attack,” said: “We’ve got lots of NFL fans and Panther fans. Some of those cross over into soccer, but there are a lot of fans who their favorite sport is soccer. We’re really going to turn all of those people on.”  He said he’s aware of “how successful Atlanta United has been. They set a new standard.” He added that in the first 24 hours, Charlotte’s MLS team took deposits for 7,000 season tickets, “more than double in our first day what Atlanta United did.”

Standing section: In Atlanta, Bowman says, five independent Atlanta United fan clubs work together to make “tifos” — giant fan-made banners that are displayed at the beginning of games. An entire section of the stadium is dedicated to the fan groups, with an expectation that you will stand for all 90 minutes and participate in the fan-written chants and songs.

“They (fans) are the life of the game-day experience — along with the $5 beer and the $2 hot dogs,” Bowman says. “There are no paid cheerleaders. It has to be organic.”

Betting on better soccer: Making U.S. soccer feel more like the international soccer experience is a radical departure from the longtime theory about selling soccer here, which from the 1970s until this decade focused on appealing to suburban families with youth soccer-playing children. From Pele through David Beckham, there was a long and storied tradition of aging international stars cashing in with a U.S. “farewell tour” that leveraged their World Cup-driven brand recognition.

Atlanta United bucked that trend, using roster slots on young, unknown players from South American countries such as Argentina, Venezuela and Paraguay. It chose entertaining soccer over aging stars, and fans flocked to watch.

United has been among many MLS franchises that have filled stadiums in recent years by targeting a young, urban fan demographic. That core marketing play — what one writer describes as “If you find the experience of the NFL or MLB to be too white and suburban, and the NBA not rowdy enough, then MLS might be for you” — carries political implications. MLS has also experienced political controversy, when a ban this season on in-stadium political messages led to tension between the Portland Timbers franchise and some fans.

If Tepper succeeds in Charlotte at anywhere near the level that Blank has in Atlanta, the MLS Charlotte experiences will be strikingly different from the scene at a Hornets or Panthers game, on the greens at the Wells Fargo Championship or in the stands at the Coca-Cola 600.

“It definitely feels like a progressive crowd, an urban crowd, a tolerant crowd, an anti-fascist crowd,” Bowman says.

The Georgia Tech professor thinks letting soccer be soccer will be key to the success of a team here.

“Can Charlotte ownership treat soccer as a co-equal to football, completely separate in management and objectives, with autonomy given to proven soccer management?” he says. “It is probably harder than it sounds.”

Tim Whitmire, a former reporter for the Charlotte Observer and The Associated Press, is a 20-year resident of Charlotte and co-founder of the F3 men’s workout movement. He can be reached at trwhitmire@gmail.com.


Tepper sizes up opportunity (zone) at Eastland

Here’s another wrinkle to the city’s plan to revitalize the Eastland Mall site by helping David Tepper build the team’s HQ and training facilities there: Eastland sits in a federal opportunity zone, which allows investors who pour money into the area to claim huge tax advantages.

The opportunity zones were created as part of the 2017 federal tax cuts, and they allow investors to reduce and defer paying capital-gains taxes until 2026 by sticking money into high-poverty communities certified by the federal government. Some critics have questioned the operation of the program, because the tax benefits are so huge, and some of the investments that qualify seem to have little relation to community revitalization. Charlotte-based Grubb Properties, for instance, is working on a project on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill that qualifies, The Ledger reported in September.

It’s a complicated program, but the tax advantages of investing in a project at Eastland could be worth millions of dollars. The city owns the site and is working with Tepper on a “public-private partnership.”

The Ledger ran the Eastland opportunity zone scenario by a reader who’s a tax lawyer, who chuckled and said: “That’s fascinating. If it’s in an opportunity zone, I’m sure they’re structuring it to qualify for all that.”

That means that on the one hand, Tepper will benefit from the $110M the city is setting aside in tourism taxes to help with the new Major League Soccer team. And on the other hand, Tepper will benefit from the federal tax advantages of investing in a high-poverty area. He’s still shelling out a reported $325M in fees, but tax money will help soften the blow.

Opportunity knocks: The Eastland Mall site, the future HQ of Charlotte’s MLS team, is in a federal opportunity zone that offers big tax advantages to investors.

Soccer 101: What’s up with the scarves?

With Major League Soccer headed to Charlotte, we ask hardcore fans to explain the game and its traditions.

Q: What’s the deal with the scarves? The season is March to October. You’re going to be sitting outside in Bank of America Stadium in July.

“There are summer scarves. They are lightweight. They are perfect for any soccer community that has warm weather. Pretty much all of MLS, especially the southern teams, definitely have summer scarves going on. I would say the scarf stared as an accessory to go to games in England and over in Europe, because it would get cold. Their season goes from usually August till May. In the December timeframe, it’s cold at games. So you throw on a scarf. Well, what better way to throw on a scarf than to have a scarf with the color of your team?” — Trey Eskridge, 28, of Charlotte

Got a question for a die-hard soccer fan? Email editor@cltledger.com.


Fresh from merger, Truist lashes back at Truliant; ‘T-R-U’ belongs to the people, it says

Finally, after six months of near-silence over a trademark-infringement lawsuit from Truliant Federal Credit Union, Truist Bank struck back this week and provided what all of Charlotte has been clamoring for: a robust and full-throated defense of the name “Truist.”

In a court filing, Truist describes its name not as a bland, meaningless and safe choice engineered by polling and focus groups. Rather, Truist depicts “Truist” as a marketing force of nature that happens to start with the letters T-R-U, like many other companies, including TruBank, TruChoice, True Value hardware and TruGreen.

The letters “T-R-U,” Truist says, belong not to Truliant or to any other company. They belong to all of us:

Truliant Federal Credit Union is improperly attempting to monopolize the common term ‘TRU-.’ But the truth of the matter is that no one can exclusively own the term ‘TRU.’

Furthermore, Truist says in the 28-page document, it obviously wasn’t the company’s intent to imitate Truliant: “With all due respect to [Truliant’s] employees, Defendant does not want to be confused with them.”

SunTrust and BB&T announced in June that they were merging into Truist and moving the combined HQ to Charlotte, where the bank will eventually employ an estimated 2,000 workers. Truliant sued days later, claiming the names were confusingly similar.

‘Extensive’ work developing the name: Truist also said in the filing that its name resulted from “an extensive, three-month naming process with one of the world’s leading branding firms to develop a unique and memorable name.” It says it has spent “another five months working on equally unique and memorable branding,” which it has yet to release.

If you’re really into contentious disputes over bank branding, you can check out Truist’s full response here.


In brief

  • Atrium profit: Atrium Health expects to make $1.1B in profit this year and more than $600M next year, CEO Gene Woods said at a quarterly board meeting. The company is the state’s third-largest employer with more than 70,000 employees and 45 hospitals. It provides $2B worth of benefits to the communities it serves, he said. It expects to spend $973M on capital projects next year, including a “$63 million investment for a new tower in Pineville; $57 million for an office building in Charlotte’s Dilworth neighborhood; $30 million for a Levine Children’s Hospital project; and $28 million to improve the Carolinas Rehabilitation Hospital adjacent to the main Charlotte campus.” (Business North Carolina)

  • Anesthesiology lawsuit: A business court judge has dismissed part of a lawsuit by Southeast Anesthesiology Consultants against Atrium Health. In a ruling last week, the judge rejected some claims from the doctor group, which filed suit last year saying that Atrium had impermissibly used confidential information to switch anesthesiology providers to a different company. But he allowed other parts of the lawsuit to continue, according to court documents.

  • Study diagnoses use of HIV drug: UNC Charlotte and Mecklenburg County Public Health are studying the demographics of people locally who are taking a drug that almost completely prevents HIV transmission. The study comes a year after Mecklenburg was named one of 48 areas nationally where the government would like to eradicate new HIV cases by 2030. (NC Health News)

  • Media move: The editor of Charlotte magazine, Emma Way, is leaving to become managing editor of Charlotte Agenda. (Agenda)


Food and drink news

A weekly wrap-up of the week’s eating and drinking developments

  • Last day for Art’s BBQ: Art’s BBQ and Deli closes today after 43 years on Morehead Street in Dilworth. The owner “said not much has changed about the restaurant in 43 years — it is no-frills, affordable comfort food.” He sold the building to the Duke Endowment. (WSOC)

  • Brunch accountability: Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen, which offers cooking classes and prepared meals in South End, called out people who claim they like brunch but don’t go to brunch. In a Twitter post, the restaurant wrote: “Dear Charlotte, you tell us you want local. You tell us that you want to come to Saturday brunch. But most of you never do. This is why good things go away.”

  • New theater: Just in time for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” Studio Movie Grill opened its second Charlotte location this week, in Prosperity Village near Highland Creek. It has burgers, salads, pizza, a full bar and desserts that include chocolate beignets.

  • Horticulture and mimosas: PlantBar, a “plant store with workshop space and a bar,” is expected to open in February in Dilworth. It has two other locations, in Virginia. “You can peruse the aisles of plants with a glass of wine or plop down to learn how to make your own arrangement.” (Agenda)

  • News you can use. Headline: “Shh, a restaurant is opening. We can’t tell you where — yet — or even what you’ll eat.” (CharlotteFive)

  • Come for food, stay for science: Eddie’s Place in Cotswold has a ponytailed server nicknamed “Waffle,” who draws on his physics background to entertain kids with science puzzles and a 3D printer. (Charlotte magazine)


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The Charlotte Ledger is published by Tony Mecia, an award-winning former Charlotte Observer business reporter and editor. He lives in Charlotte with his wife and three children.