Review by Budd Bailey
Any discussion about a book called “Loserville” must start with its title. If you only knew that a sports volume was coming out by that name, where would you guess the story was centered?
The winner is indeed Atlanta, as indicated by the subtitle, “How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta – and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports.” The actual titles comes from a series of articles in an Atlanta newspaper a few years ago about what went wrong with the city’s teams. After reading the book by Claytor Trutor, it’s easy to think that he’s got a case for that particular title. It’s a wide-ranging look at the circumstances surrounding Atlanta and its professional teams.
When the 1960s began, the four major pro sports were a tight fraternity bunched mostly in the Northeast and Midwest. But changes already were underway that would alter the landscape considerably. The population was shifting – first to the West Coast, as evidenced by the moves of baseball’s Dodgers and Giants to Los Angeles and San Francisco. But it was also moving to the so-called Sun Belt states of the South.
The Sixties saw increased numbers in the old Confederacy states, which were mostly left out of big league sports around then. The Miami Dolphins were one of the few exceptions. It was also the time of the civil rights revolution. African Americans still were leaving rural areas of the South by then, but they were just as likely to be landing in the big cities of the South as opposed to going into the big cities of the North and Midwest.
That brings us to Atlanta, which featured a rapidly growing metropolitan area in that era. While it can be a nice problem for a government to have, it doesn’t mean the problems are insignificant. You can start with housing, infrastructure, poverty, and go from there. Atlanta had all of that, and it also had something called “white flight” – whites leaving the city in droves and moving to the suburbs. Atlanta soon became a majority black city – and economicially, that almost made the area look like a doughnut on the map.
Politicians and civic leaders got together and search for the old standby, the proverbial “silver bullet,” to change the equation. Maybe pro sports could be the answer. It would provide benefits to the community, making it “big league” to a country that from the outside of the South had looked down on the region because of its civil rights policies. Sports could provide benefits in the quality of life for those who wanted to be fans.
The problem, as Trutor points out, was that Atlanta made quite a few mistakes. It was anxious to build a new stadium to lure teams to Georgia, so it build a new multi-purpose stadium. That had the intended goal, as the Braves landed in Atlanta from Milwaukee and the NFL granted an expansion team to the area (Falcons). The stadium was built in Atlanta proper, in an era where new housing for residents was supposed to be built. So the overcrowded and poverty in the city only became worse. What’s more, the stadium was near a high-crime area. If suburban fans needed an excuse not to go to games, they had one – and used it, at least when the teams were poor. And they often were.
It was a similar story when the Hawks and Flames arrived soon after the Braves and Falcons did. A shiny new arena soon was built downtown that was part of a large real estate development complex. But other businesses really didn’t follow the teams to the area, in part because the area’s economic muscle was moving out of the central city. Throw in the fact that no one in Georgia had much of a tradition of following pro sports, except for transplants. It was tough to make a dent into the fans’ interest in college sports as well as outside recreational opportunities.
So what happened? The Braves had one long run of success during their time in Atlanta; we can call them the Glavine/Smoltz years. The team eventually moved to the suburbs. We will see if the team’s World Series run in 2021 can spark several years of success. The Falcons are on their third stadium but remain one of the few teams that has never won a Super Bowl. The Hawks have rarely been relevant, having never reached the NBA Finals since arriving in Atlanta. The NHL has been in the city twice, and both times left relatively quickly.
The author is quick to point out that Atlanta isn’t the only city in the Sun Belt to go through this. Tampa has had an uneven transition into the world of pro sports. The Rays still don’t draw anyone, and the Bucs were usually mediocre to bad … at least until Tom Brady arrived. The Lightning had the same status for several years, but have won three Stanley Cups in this century to build up interest.
Trutor is remarkably thorough in going through all of these. It’s easy to get a little lost in all of the anagrams presented here; there are government agencies, authorities and other groups here. This is also rather dry material in many cases, and it’s a big book – about 400 pages. If you are looking for any sort of recap of Atlanta’s on-field problems, well, this isn’t the place.
It’s tough to picture many people who might consider “Loserville” to be “leisure reading.” I’m not sure many people outside of Georgia will be interested enough to pick it up. However, those that do will discover some rewards on what to do and what not to do when it comes to the relationship between municipalities and sports teams.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)