Trutor, Clayton. Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta––and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 2022. Pp. 504. $34.95 hardback and ebook.
Reviewed by Łukasz Muniowski
A major American city––one that is either in development or dealing with social, economic, or environmental issues––never fully “arrives” or “emerges” on the national map until it lands a major league team. Sport then becomes a vessel for this new, improved version of the city, a symbol of the completeness of the transformation of the region or the state. In the 1970s, nine North American cities were truly “major league,” which meant––and still means––having a MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL franchise. Only one was located in the American South: the city of Atlanta.
In 1966, the Milwaukee Braves relocated to Georgia and the Atlanta Falcons were a new expansion franchise, making Atlanta a baseball and a football town, at least initially. Two years later, the St. Louis Hawks basketball franchise moved to Atlanta. Then, in 1972, a new hockey team, the Atlanta Flames, was established. While welcomed with excitement, the teams failed to gain the social and culture traction needed to become something more than sources of entertainment for the inhabitants of Atlanta. Civic leaders, who envisioned sports arenas and stadiums as places of racial mixing and integration, were largely disappointed by the city’s professional sports teams.
In Loserville, Clayton Trutor details the first decade of major league sports in Atlanta, chronicling how the pursuit of professional franchises shaped the city and how the process influenced the further expansion of the four biggest sports leagues. Step by step, he dissects how Atlanta enticed not one but four teams to select the city as their home. Trutor also explains why the franchises did not become great successes in a city that, supposedly, was eager to engage in the escapism provided by athletic competition.
One of the first mistakes made by local authorities was placing the two playing facilities––Atlanta Stadium and Omni Coliseum––in the city’s Central Business District. The plan was to use sport to fuel the kind of cultural developments happening all over the American South. A campaign organized by numerous influence groups sought to bring all four major franchises to one vicinity, working together in the hopes of showing that the Atlanta of the 1960s had definitively severed ties with a past marked by white racial resistance and instead was one of the most progressive American cities. Atlanta Stadium and Omni Coliseum were envisioned as places where white and Black Atlantans would sit side by side as they together rooted for the same teams. Such an image would symbolize Atlanta’s status a revamped, modern southern city. Yet, the facilities’ “proximity to some of the city’s most impoverished and high-crime neighborhoods deterred many potential suburban patrons from attending events at the facility” (p. 145).
As Trutor notes, white and Black Georgians had shared stands in sports facilities in the past. A series of three exhibition games between the minor league Atlanta Crackers and the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949 was the first truly integrated baseball game held in the city. Atlanta did not necessarily need major league franchises for its demographics to come together. Yet, after the economic growth of the 1950s, it was evident that a big-time franchise would soon make its way to the city.
In order to convince a franchise or league to consider Atlanta as a possible location for expansion or relocation, the city needed a stadium which could either be filled to the brim on a nightly basis or come with a favorable lease, meaning that the team owner could turn a profit even without the team itself being a great success. When it came to Milwaukee Braves moving South, the latter, plus a lucrative television contract, sealed the deal in 1966. As the only Major League Baseball team in the region, the Braves could become synonymous with the sport among the southern audiences, which would undoubtedly increase their marketability.
That same year, the city was supposed to bring in an AFL franchise for the unprecedented price of $7.5 million. Learning of that, the NFL stepped in, looking not to lose the market to competition. That gave birth to the Atlanta Falcons, the city’s first professional football team. The interest was undoubtedly there. The franchise had to cut off ticket sales at 45,000, making the Falcons the most successful expansion team in history––at least when it came to potential fans. The play of the team would not meet the expectations of eager fans, as team owner Rankin Smith knew little about football and delegated the management of the team to a group of associates who shared his equally small sports acumen. This resulted in those same season-ticket holders booing the team. The Falcons struggled for local support in later seasons. The performance of the team could be partially blamed on the steamy playing conditions and the poor quality of the field, as Atlanta Stadium soon would become notorious in baseball and football circles.
When it came to basketball and hockey, both seemed a bit foreign to predominantly white audiences, as the former was perceived as a Black and the latter a Canadian sport. The Atlanta Hawks’ management went out of its way to appeal to white fans by sacrificing the best (Black) players on the team to draft a white prospect from LSU, “Pistol” Pete Maravich. The move affected the overall quality of the on-court product. Maravich was a player capable of making beautiful, eye-pleasing plays, but his flashy skills simply did not translate to wins. The special treatment he received also caused a rift between him and the rest of the team.
Out of the four Atlanta-based franchises, the most unlikely of them all––the Flames––was the most successful. Granted, the bar was set relatively low during the time period described in the book. But still, the Flames made the postseason six times during their eight years of existence. Even though the Flames’ original marketing campaign was based on explaining the rules of the “strange” game of hockey to southerners, they developed quite the following, especially among women. However, as the novelty wore off, the fan numbers soon diminished and the Flames relocated north of the border to Calgary.
While the Falcons were able to save themselves, with a substantial support of taxpayer money, the Braves and the Hawks were kept in Atlanta thanks to one man, Ted Turner. By investing his own money, Turner allowed the city to keep its status as a representative southern metropolis. He also had a chance to save the Flames but was unwilling to pay the debt amassed by the franchise. All in all, despite great conditions and teeming potential, Atlanta never became the sports-obsessed city it was envisioned to be. Loserville gives a plethora of reasons for the failure, even though the failure––just like the title of the book––is a clear exaggeration. Most municipalities would love to have what Atlanta had in the 1960s and 1970s.
Łukasz Muniowski recieved his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021), and The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021).