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Monday, August 23, 2010

Ben's Sports Take: Welcome to Atlanta where the players play fans show up

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As I sat inside the Georgia Dome press box before kickoff of the Falcons first preseason game of the 2010 season, there was an undeniable sense of energy and excitement stemming from the 65,726 fans in attendance—and this was just a preseason game.

Less than two miles away, 38,602 baseball fans filed into Turner Field to watch the first-place Braves take on the Los Angeles Dodgers.

(Don't forget about the 6,025 fans who partially filled Philips Arena to watch the Atlanta Dream)

For those of you who aren't mathematically-inclined—or are just too lazy to add—that's more than 110,000 sports fans occupying the venues of downtown Atlanta at one time.

Needless to say, Atlanta sports fans are back.

I'm not really sure where they went or why they left, but they're back and that's all that matters.

Gone are the days of mediocre teams and half-filled stadiums. No longer can you simply walk up to the ticket booth at Turner Field one hour before first pitch and purchase an upper pavilion ticket.

Those hideous teal seats that used to go unfilled inside the Georgia Dome have been replaced by red and black seats that can hardly be seen thanks to near-sellouts of every Falcons home game.

Heck, even Philips Arena was packed during the Hawks' recent playoff appearance.

After nearly a half-decade of tedious teams and dispassionate fan bases, the Atlanta sports scene is relevant again and it's only going to get better.

—Despite a nine-game losing streak and season-ending injuries to key players, the Braves still find themselves in first place and are poised to make their first playoff appearance since 2005.

Unlike past postseasons, however, I doubt that it will be quite as easy to find seating inside the Ted this fall after an unforgettable regular season—and a five-year playoff hiatus.

Over those five years, the aisles of Turner Field resembled a casting call for the Jersey Shore as hundreds of local twenty-somethings treated the ballpark as a pre-club hangout spot instead of a baseball game.

This season has been different as true Atlanta baseball fans have returned to the Ted and the Braves are playing better as a result.

Atlanta has the best home record (44-17) in the Majors this season and I can't help but think that the lack of cosmo-drinking, designer jean-wearing socialites in attendance might have something to do with it.

—While there hasn't been the same identity crisis among Falcon fans over the past few seasons, getting those fans to actually attend games after the departure of Michael Vick—or before the arrival of head coach Mike Smith—wasn't always easy.

But after drawing nearly 140,000 fans to the Georgia Dome for two preseason games earlier this month, it appears that the Falcons—not the Bulldogs or Yellow Jackets—are officially the most popular football team inside the I-285 circle.

An Atlanta backfield consisting of a healthy Matt Ryan and Michael Turner has folks around the league expecting big things from the Falcons this season and why shouldn't they be?

The Falcons are coming off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history and should compete for a division title against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.

Having one of the league's best running backs (Turner), tight ends (Tony Gonzalez) and wide receivers (Roddy White) will heighten the expectations a little bit and the city is ready to celebrate when they're met or jeer when they're not.

—One team that seems immune to the pressure of high expectations is the Georgia State football team.

Entering their inaugural season in less than two weeks, no one in Atlanta is expecting the Panthers to do much of anything this year, but the anticipation is still there.

The anticipation of the unknown: A college football team at the city's largest University (sorry Techies).

Regardless of the ultimate success—or lack thereof—of GSU's first football season, the Falcons quest for three straight winning campaigns or the Braves postseason push, you can count on one thing: Atlantans will be there to see them all unfold.

Atlanta sports fans have never seemed to fully grasp the fact that fan support always precedes—and breeds—team success.

But therein lies the beauty of the 2010-11 Atlanta sports landscape: it appears that we're finally starting to figure that out.

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