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Today, our partners at Highwire Group held its inaugural Disruptor Studio, a new corporate panel series that aims to deliver intimate conversations with innovative Atlanta executives. Appropriately, it started with a company indicative of Atlanta’s thriving blend of innovative startups and enterprises.

It may seem odd to consider a sporting franchise as a startup, but in 2 years, Atlanta United went from an idea to one of the most successful, energetic teams in the world. This success was largely due to the vision and leadership of Darren Eales, President of Atlanta United FC. Make sure to keep an eye out for video of the event from Highwire, but we pulled out a few ideas that every innovator should keep in mind.

Ditch the Prevailing Wisdom

In many ways, Atlanta United benefited from exceptional timing, but building a new team in a 22-year-old sports league meant overcoming decades of entrenched thinking for American soccer. Before finding any success on the pitch, Eales and Atlanta United found themselves bucking tradition in a number of ways:

    • Hiring Eales himself was a bold move for Arthur Blank, who also owns the Atlanta Falcons. Eales had worked in the front office of some of the largest teams in the English Premier League before being tapped for United. By looking outside the league for leadership, Blank indicated he was ready for new ideas.
    • In the past, Major League Soccer searched for fans by building complexes in the suburbs and targeting soccer moms. As soccer’s popularity soared among urban millennials, teams founded early in MLS history have been left behind.
  • Previous teams also focused marketing on hardcore sports fans and tried to attract them into soccer fandom. Atlanta United started by reaching out to avid soccer fans and building the team around an engaged community.

Diversity of Thought Drives Innovation

At every stage of its growth, United has remained open to new ideas. Eales found and empowered Atlanta soccer fans on pub crawls throughout the city. The team hired an Argentine coach, Gerardo Martino, while the prevailing MLS wisdom was that foreign coaches could never work in the league. Blank hired a VP of Business Operations, Catie Griggs, who had never worked in soccer before.

This diversity continually challenges assumptions and brings new ways of thinking to a league in need of new vision.

Share Resources When Beneficial and Build Resources for Fans

Like many MLS teams, Atlanta United shares resources and corporate structure with an established team – the Atlanta Falcons. While Eales and his team leveraged those resources to build the organization and scale rapidly, he was adamant that United needs its own resources for specific business functions.

While staff above the Director level work across both teams, any fan-facing United employee was dedicated solely to the team. This allows his staff to live and breathe the team’s fan experience.


Be Flexible In Enacting Core Values

Eales shared that he had Atlanta United’s red and black kits in his mind from his first week. He knew the team would have three pillars of an exceptional on-field product, an empowered fanbase, and a team highly engaged in the community.

But as the team has grown, Eales has remained flexible on how the team supports those pillars. Fans have massive ownership over the team’s cheers and rituals, meeting with United staff each month to discuss plans. They engage with soccer coaches throughout Georgia to help identify up-and-coming talent, and they have engineered innovative ways to interact with the community.

Any innovator knows their plans and strategies rarely survive the first contact with the marketplace. If you’ve developed a strong culture and clear core values, strategies can easily shift to support a vibrant culture.

Stay tuned for more from the monthly Disruptor Studio by our partners at Highwire Group, led by our innovator-in-residence Alex Gonzalez.

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