Building a Winning Team: One Perspective

Atlanta United (Major League Soccer)

 Atlanta United’s soccer team has taken the city “by storm.” Their merchandise is first in Major League Soccer in sales, and their average attendance (53,000) is fifteenth in the world across all soccer leagues (#1 in MLS). Ownership had secured 16,500 season ticket holders before it had even been named, and 2.5 years before it even played a game.

I was able to attend a meet and greet with Darren Eales last week, and he laid out several keys to the team’s surprisingly quick success, both on the field and off.

  1. Ownership with a Vision – Arthur Blank, former Home Depot executive and owner of the Atlanta Falcons, saw Major League Soccer as a growth sport and envisioned Atlanta as a great market. He began planning the Mercedes-Benz stadium construction with sights on it being home for both of his teams. He also understood the importance of being fan friendly. Much like his decision to slash ticket prices for the Falcons when buying the team, he wanted to make Mercedes-Benz a fan friendly stadium. He wanted the fan experience to be second to none and was the mastermind behind the $1.6 billion end product. In addition, he decided from the beginning to keep prices for concessions very low.
  1. Sustainable Infrastructure – After hiring Darren Eales as its President, it was important to determine the team’s identity/culture and build around that. They chose Gerardo Martino as head coach because of his background in building a successful team and being a good judge of talent. They started a United academy program (U11-U18) where they could build homegrown talent that is cheaper, while also showing a commitment to local youth and teaching them the game the right way from the beginning. Eales also benchmarked like programs in Seattle and New England, and was able to use a shared services model from a back office staff standpoint. Finally, they knew it was important to make a great first signing and use that to establish the team’s identity.
  1. Fan First Approach – At its onset, senior leadership wanted to make it about the fans. From the pre-game experience to atmosphere within the stadium (standing, cheering, etc.), there was a desire to have the fans dictate the experience. Blank and Eale’s goal was to create “fans for life”. They conducted grass roots marketing initiatives and assigned sales reps to each fan. Once the team started playing, Blank wanted to make the players accessible to the fans through open practices and shared facilities with the academy. 

At the time of this article, Atlanta United is in first place in the Eastern Conference with three games left to play. They will make the playoffs for the second time in two seasons. They are, indeed, built for success.


“From my perspective, it was a great opportunity. It was a blank sheet of paper, to start a team from scratch…The big thing for me was when I came over and spoke to (team owner) Arthur (Blank). To see his commitment, to see the respect he has in the community and in sports, it was fascinating.”

– Darren Eales, Atlanta United President
First interview with Atlanta Journal-Constitution (11/19/14)

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