Loserville

How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta—and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports

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Pub Date 01 Feb 2022 | Archive Date 31 Jan 2022

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Description

In July 1975 the editors of the Atlanta Constitution ran a two-part series entitled “Loserville, U.S.A.” The provocatively titled series detailed the futility of Atlanta’s four professional sports teams in the decade following the 1966 arrival of its first two major league franchises, Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves and the National Football League’s Atlanta Falcons. Two years later, the Atlanta Hawks of the National Basketball Association became the city’s third major professional sports franchise. In 1972 the National Hockey League granted the Flames expansion franchise to the city, making Atlanta the first southern city with teams in all four of the big leagues.

The excitement surrounding the arrival of four professional franchises in Atlanta in a six-year period soon gave way to widespread frustration and, eventually, widespread apathy toward its home teams. All four of Atlanta’s franchises struggled in the standings and struggled to draw fans to their games. Atlantans’ indifference to their new teams took place amid the social and political fracturing that had resulted from a new Black majority in Atlanta and a predominately white suburban exodus. Sports could never quite bridge the divergence between the two.

Loserville examines the pursuit, arrival, and response to professional sports in Atlanta during its first decade as a major league city (1966–75). It scrutinizes the origins of what remains the primary model for acquiring professional sports franchises: offers of municipal financing for new stadiums. Other Sunbelt cities like San Diego, Phoenix, and Tampa that aspired to big league stature adopted Atlanta’s approach. Like the teams in Atlanta, the franchises in these cities have had mixed results—both in terms of on-field success and financial stability.
 

In July 1975 the editors of the Atlanta Constitution ran a two-part series entitled “Loserville, U.S.A.” The provocatively titled series detailed the futility of Atlanta’s four professional sports...


Advance Praise

“Clayton Trutor vividly and expertly untangles the complex ball of issues that made Atlanta's transformation into a ‘Major League’ sports town so unexpectedly (and maddeningly) difficult. A fascinating look at the way professional sports collided with politics, economics, and social upheaval in the 1960s and 1970s, Loserville also serves as a cautionary tale for any twenty-first-century city that’s hoping to land its own MLB, NFL, NBA, or NHL franchise. In other words, be careful what you wish for!”—Dan Epstein, author of Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s

“In Loserville Clayton Trutor uses painstaking research and impressive command of Atlanta’s political and racial history to depict the birth of a modern American sports town. Only this creation story comes with a surprising twist. Build it and they will come? Think again.”—John Eisenberg, author of The League: How Five Rivals Created the NFL and Launched a Sports Empire

“As a baseball historian and writer since 1969, and as a fan of the Braves since 1957, I loved every page of Loserville, a well-crafted and well-researched history of both Atlanta and its sports teams. I especially enjoyed reliving the roller-coaster ride the baseball team took from its arrival in 1966 through its dismal years as the Bad-News Braves, with attendance so poor that it took Ted Turner to keep the team in town—and eventually in national view via TBS and some shrewd acquisitions. I like the place and the book.”—Dan Schlossberg, author of When the Braves Ruled the Diamond: Fourteen Flags Over Atlanta

Loserville is a fascinating history of Atlanta’s emergence as the epicenter of Sunbelt sports. . . . In a revealing portrait of Atlanta and the ground-shifting changes in American sports, Trutor demonstrates how the age of franchise free agency collided with the political fracturing of a divided city. Anyone interested in the history of American sports, the South, or Atlanta should read this book.”—Johnny Smith, Julius C. “Bud” Shaw Professor of Sports History at the Georgia Institute of Technology and author of The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty that Changed College Basketball

“Clayton Trutor vividly and expertly untangles the complex ball of issues that made Atlanta's transformation into a ‘Major League’ sports town so unexpectedly (and maddeningly) difficult. A...


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Featured Reviews

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.

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Intriguing Look At Atlanta And Professional Sports History. As I sit to write this review, the Atlanta Braves are less than 90 minutes from First Pitch on Game 5 of the 2021 World Series – and with a 3-1 lead over the Houston Astros, Atlanta stands a chance at winning the series in front of the home town crowd before the sun rises again, its first in 26 years. And yes, I’ve made it a point to read this book – which I’ve had on my ARC Calendar for seemingly a couple of months now – this particular weekend, for exactly this reason.

Here, Trutor does a phenomenal job of showing the full history of the first decade of professional sports in Atlanta, with all five of its major league teams at some point in the late 60s to early 70s – my parents’ own childhood, on the exurbs of the very town in question. Indeed, Trutor speaks of the *development* of things that were well-established by my own childhood in the same region in the 80s and 90s, such as the Omni, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the Georgia Dome, and even Underground Atlanta (which apparently had been redone by the time of my childhood, as it wasn’t nearly so infamous then). He then does a great job of showing how while Atlanta was the first Southern City to acquire these franchises, there were (and are) several other Southern Cities that have largely followed Atlanta’s model over the decades since… with similar results, for the most part.

There are arguably two weaknesses to the version of this text I read: On a style side, the final chapter, covering in broad strokes what happened in the other Southern Cities that tried to follow Atlanta and how they turned out over the years, is a bit of an abrupt ending. Apt, but abrupt.

The other is that Trutor tends to argue that race played quite a bit of a role in the development of Atlanta Sports and what I came to know as the Geography of Atlanta. I wasn’t alive during the periods Trutor mostly covers, so I can’t speak to those periods as the Native Georgian I am. But I *can* speak to one move Trutor covers, if briefly – the Braves’ move from Turner Field to SunTrust (now Truist) Park over the last decade, where fans are finding their seats as I type this to hopefully watch their hometown baseball club win the 2021 World Series. I was actually there for that one, and as one of those fans on the northern Perimeter I can attest to a lot of the fears about safety and finding a good (yet not overly expensive) parking spot at Turner Field. (Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where I saw my first Braves games as a child and even a monster truck rally or two, was demolished right around the time my age began having two digits in it, so I can’t speak to issues there.) I can also attest that the new Battery design is much more conducive to getting me to spend money in the area immediately around the park, which is something the former Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium / Olympic Stadium / Turner Field site has never offered. But these are observations from a native who has been to the relevant areas throughout his life – vs a Vermont-based academic.

Even with these differences though, Trutor’s work here is truly well written and solidly documented – roughly 20% of this copy was bibliography, and the prose here is enlightening and engaging without ever going too deep into “academic speak”. Fans of Atlanta and Georgia sports or history are absolutely going to need to read this book, and indeed fans of major US sporting in general should fine quite a bit here to be illuminating. Even people who decry “sports ball” will find an utterly fascinating read about a little-documented series of events that has come to shape, in parts, the entirety of American professional sporting. Very much recommended.

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For a time during the 1960's and 1970's, the sports world had a nickname for the city of Atlanta – "Loserville." It was derived mainly from the lack of on-field success for three of the city's four major sports teams – baseball's Braves, football's Falcons and basketball's Hawks. The only team during that time was the newest franchise, the Atlanta Flames hockey team. They also were the only team of the four who drew consistently large crowds but even they, by the end of the 1970's, also had troubles in the standings and in the stands. How these franchises coped with these times and how it shaped the city is illustrated in this very good book by Clayton Trutor.
There is a lot of information and ideas to digest in this volume. There are the business aspects behind the operations of each of the teams as Atlanta had no major league teams before 1966 when the Milwaukee Braves, after a contentious sale and lame duck season in Milwaukee, moved to the southern city. Soon afterward, the NFL awarded the city an expansion franchise, hoping the fans who flocked to college football games would do the same for a professional team. Basketball also took a wayward team, the St. Louis Hawks, and moved them to Atlanta. The Flames came later when the NHL awarded two expansion teams to Atlanta and Long Island in 1972.

Trutor addresses both the economic and the social impacts that the new teams brought to the city. There were new facilities that needed to be built – Atlanta Stadium for the Braves and Falcons in an area that had a poor reputation for crime and safety, not completely unfounded. There was also a question of removing families, mostly Black from homes to make way for the ballpark. Later the Omni, an arena that was built in a business district hoping the fans of the Flames and the Hawks would revitalize the area, also had issues. These were mainly due to flaws in the building structure, rendering it obsolete soon after opening. There were other issues such as transportation and racial matters as well with mostly well-to-do white patrons attending the games. This makes for an excellent look at what professional sports can and can't bring to a city, something noteworthy as more team owners look for publicly financed facilities.

The reading is easier than expected, staying away from a scholarly type of organization and language. The only quibble is that the ending feels rushed when other southern cites are illustrated to show that it wasn't only Atlanta that had issues with new professional teams. It was ironic to read a book titled "Loserville" immediately after the Braves won the World Series and Tampa was a city cited at the end, despite the fact that two of its teams, the football Buccaneers and hockey Lightning, both are the reigning champions of their respective leagues. Still, if one enjoys reading about the business side of sports mixed in with social issues, this is an excellent choice.

I wish to thank University of Nebraska Press for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Loserville is an excellent panoramic history of the city of Atlanta during the 20th century and specifically, how the city’s leaders attracted professional sports franchises beginning in the 1960s and the lasting impacts. There are quite a bit of racial, socioeconomic and political factors in Atlanta sports history.

As Trutor notes, Atlanta was seen in the 1920s as providing African American “with the greatest number of economic and educational opportunities.” Former Mayor William Hartsfield formed a powerful biracial coalition between the Atlanta Chamber leaders (largely white business owners) and the Black business owners, many of whom resided on Auburn Avenue. This formula worked well for many of Hartsfield’s successors. While Atlanta’s only nationwide brand in the 1920s was Coca-Cola, the city headquartered some of the region’s largest banks and the region’s busiest airport by 1960.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Trutor’s book is how Atlanta set the precedent for what he terms a Sunbelt city to lure sports franchises away from struggling Rustbelt cities with lucrative offers of public support. For Trutor, a Sunbelt city basically any one along the coast in the Southeast or the West. Interestingly, I never considered that 75 percent of franchise relocations and league expansions have occurred after 1966 (the year the Braves franchise relocated from Milwaukee to Atlanta). Atlanta’s business and political leaders secured investments that led to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for the Braves and Falcons franchises and later The Omni, the home of both the Hawks and Flames franchises (what is it about Atlanta attempting to host a professional hockey team).
As Trutor points out, unfortunately professional sports sometimes only shined a brighter light on social divisions, rather than providing relief as the city’s leaders had hoped. Sometimes Atlanta sports fans get a bad rap, but as Trutor points out, Atlanta sports fans are simply more discerning than sports fans in the northeast. Until very recently, they haven’t had a lot to cheer about. Rightfully, Trutor focuses on the Truist Park controversy, for which I have mixed feelings. I can’t say I’m a fan of a ballpark built way out in the suburbs, but I will admit that watching the Braves play before a raucous crowd during the 2021 World Series felt a lot better than seeing them play before a stadium that had more Yankees fans than Braves fans (see 2000 World Series). One thing I wish the author had delved into more deeply is the fact that Atlanta has a huge transplant population, which has had a huge impact on the fanbase. Looking at this history more fully would have been worthwhile, as I think this plays a role in the fans’ fickle nature, too.

That said, Trutor has written a fascinating history that should appeal to students of Atlanta history, as well as students of sports history. Cities like Tampa Bay, San Diego and even Seattle borrowed parts of the blueprint from Atlanta. It is written in an accessible style, although it is well-referenced, too.

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Thank you to NetGalley and the University of Nevada Press for providing me an e-book copy of LOSERVILLE by Clayton Trutor.

The 2021 Atlanta Braves surprised everyone and gave the Deep South's largest major city a World Series title when they beat the Houston Astros. The stunning series victory, with three of the games played in the Braves’ 5-year-old Truist Park in suburban Cobb County, was a 180-degree turn from the mid-1970s when the Braves' performance on and off the field was a major contributor to the term "Loserville, USA," a nickname bestowed on the city's pro sports teams by the then-Atlanta Constitution newspaper in July 1975.

At that point, Atlanta had teams in all four major sports league and all were considered laughingstocks in their respective circuits. Never mind, that the city had no major pro sports teams just 10 years earlier. And just two months after that article, the same Braves and Astros franchises played a Monday night game before just 737 fans at Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium, a multi-purpose ballpark located on the edge of downtown that had gone from crown jewel to brittle paste in less than 10 years.

In "Loserville," Clayton Trutor thoroughly traces Atlanta's journey to crack the big-league scene to the franchises’ dramatic fall to the depths of all four major sports leagues in less than a decade. Trutor masterfully details the city's political and social issues and Atlanta's maneuvers to try to draw a pro sports team from either the National Football League or American Football League.

He also deftly covers the construction of the multi-purpose outdoor stadium that helped land Major League Baseball's Braves and the National Football League's Falcons, and the process to build the Omni, a downtown indoor arena that ultimately housed the National Basketball Association's Hawks and National Hockey League's Flames. Both stadiums had problems almost from the start, and quickly became so outdated that they were replaced in the 1990s. The Flames left for Calgary in 1980, the Hawks played almost a third of their home schedule in New Orleans in 1984-85, and the Braves and Falcons routinely finished near the bottom of their leagues' attendance rankings.

Trutor’s “Loserville” is a fascinating read, especially for those captivated by drama and behind-the-scenes tales from political and corporate board rooms. And given the Braves’ Cinderella ride through the 2021 season along with the Hawks’ rags-to-riches rise to the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals earlier in the year, “Loserville” is a great way for Atlanta sports fans to savor the present by remembering how terrible the bad old days used to be.

I rate LOSERVILLE four out of five stars.

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Subtitled: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta – and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports

I received an advance reader copy of this book from the publisher through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

When I saw this book listed on Net Galley, I immediately thought it would be packed with great stories about players like Phil Niekro, Ralph Garr, Chipper Jones, Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, and Dominique Wilkins. Unfortunately, that’s not what this book delivered.


Loserville‘s subtitle emphasizes professional sports, but I’d estimate only about 50% of the content focused on the sporting aspect of the story. The remaining content provided copious details about the behind the scenes political and financial maneuvering associated with securing Atlanta’s sports franchises, stadium financing and construction for those franchises, and the box office success (or more often, failure) of the Atlanta sports teams. The book did not totally exclude the true sports element that attracted me. It includes quite a bit about Hank Aaron, the original stars of the Atlanta Hawks NBA team at the time the franchise moved from St. Louis, ‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich – who joined the Hawks a season or two after its relocation, and the eight year run of the Atlanta Flames in the NHL before they relocated to Calgary. The Falcons were rarely brought up outside of the story of how they came to be, unless it was with regard to their attendance problems and crime problems in the vicinity of their original stadium.

I did appreciate the inclusion of several pages concerning professional wrestling in Atlanta, which was described as one of the best attended sporting events in the city, and also as having the most integrated audiences.

I gave Loserville three stars on Goodreads. It contained too much about various mayoral administrations and stadium commissions, and too little about actual on-the-field sports and athletes.

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This book weaves the political and corporate dealings of sports team relocation and expansion with the lackluster early years of Atlanta sports performance. The history of getting the Braves, Falcons, Hawks, and Flames to Atlanta serves as a cautionary tale of what truly needs to occur to land such franchises. The lean early decades serves as a reminder that success does not come easily. The recent success of the Braves and Hawks seems improbable when compared to their earliest time in Atlanta.

I received an ARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

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