If you search online, you can find lists of the wealthiest, and even the most despised owners in American sports, but no mention of the “most loved” or “most popular.”
There is no question among Atlanta United FC fans who holds the latter titles.
It’s Uncle Arthur.
There is a unique bond between the soccer team’s devoted followers and Arthur Blank, who also owns a football team called the Atlanta Falcons.
Consider the scene on Blank’s 75th birthday, Sept. 27, 2017, which coincided with a 3-0 win against the Philadelphia Union at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The supporter’s groups, whose members stand, bounce up-and-down, and sway side-to-side, all while singing throughout the games, chanted “Uncle Arthur” as the multi-billionaire approached their end of the stadium. They serenaded Blank with “Happy Birthday” and, in turn, received pieces of a large cake.
A couple of weeks ago, on Dec. 8, Atlanta United gave Blank the best imaginable Chanukah present, the championship of Major League Soccer. Before a deafening home crowd of 73,019, the second-year team defeated the Portland Timbers 2-0 to win the 2018 MLS Cup.
Two days later, Blank addressed thousands of jubilant fans, who ignored the wet and chill as they lined downtown streets for a parade and flowed into the stadium’s “back yard” for a rally.
“I could walk around and thank every single person here, but the greatest tribute belongs to you, our fans. You’re unbelievable. God bless you all. You did an unbelievable job supporting this team throughout the year. … I want to thank you for responding with energy and passion and caring and love for this team and for our great city. I could not be prouder of anything than I am today of seeing you all out here, with great diversity and great inclusion. God bless you all and thank you so much,” he said.
Team president Darren Eales proclaimed, “Atlanta has the greatest owner anyone could wish for, in Uncle Arthur.”
I have been a soccer fan for nearly five decades, dating back to the first article I wrote about soccer for my high school newspaper. With a daughter and two sons, my wife and I were soccer parents for 20 years. I probably watch more soccer on television than anything else. It is, Audrey has said, the “other religion” in our home.
Atlanta United has transformed my wife – once the self-proclaimed “worst soccer mom,” known to read newspapers at her children’s games – into a jersey-wearing, full-throated fan (even if the offside rule still confuses her).
In various combinations, our family has attended every game since the March 5, 2017, debut at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
If all Blank had done was bring Atlanta a team in the top flight of American soccer, dayenu, it would have been enough. But this team has become much more than its trophies.
I was glad to hear Blank laud the diversity and inclusiveness of the Atlanta United fan base. The decals, banners and flags visible around the city, and the level of player engagement, are a testament to how well his organization has integrated the team into the community.
A year ago, when Blank received a lifetime achievement award from the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta, he said that Americans were at “a time in our nation’s history where the notion of inclusiveness, diversity and equality is being challenged. Hard lines are being drawn, and people are again being segmented by many who, in my view, are more interested in political positioning than they are in demonstrating and championing the ideals of a great country.”
There is no such segmenting among Atlanta United fans.
Every time we enter the stadium, seeing people of various races and ethnicities, hearing a variety of languages, we are struck by how much the fans represent the diversity of Atlanta and, indeed, the United States.
That, as much as the championship, is the legacy Atlanta United is building.
So, thank you, Uncle Arthur. Unite and conquer.