Atlanta United Is Revolutionizing Youth Soccer

By LeagueApps
January 10, 2019
6 min
Professional leagues and teams have become increasingly interested in youth and community engagement over the past three years. Atlanta United is a shining example of an organization committed to both its community and to growing the sport of soccer at the youth level. LeagueApps is proud to provide the management software to make their youth programming happen. To understand the scale at which #ATLUTD is currently operating, we sat down with their Community Relations Manager, Marissa Ahrens.

What is your current role with Atlanta United? 

I am the Community Relations Manager for Atlanta United. On the team side, I manage all of our non-profit relationships and our outreach programs. The outreach programs, in particular, have been strategically aligned with what MLS does on a larger scale. Major League Soccer’s community outreach initiative, MLS WORKS, addresses important social issues and serves as a platform for both League and club philanthropic programs. On the community relations side, we have four main pillars: Our Sustainability Platform, the United & Conquer Cancer Platform, the Special Olympics Unified Team, and finally our military efforts.
We’re fortunate to have the leading stadium in green energy and green initiatives, which allows us to give back to our community. Our United & Conquer Cancer platform stems from the league’s Kick Childhood Cancer campaign and provides us with the opportunity to work with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Our Special Olympics Unified Team is made up of athletes at the high school level with intellectual disabilities and those that do not, and they form a travel team. It is an incredible experience for the kids involved. This was the first year of our “Salute the Troops” initiative, and we’re excited to expand that in years to come.

How would you describe the Atlanta United Foundation and what they’re doing in the community?

A big part of the Foundation’s mission comes down to aligning with what the club is hoping to achieve. The academy team, for example, represents a way to engage with the community while increasing the access for youth soccer players across the state. The Foundation achieves this in three separate ways. The first is soccer programming, where we provide grants to programs like Soccer in the Streets. Funding programs provide soccer opportunities for children who otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to the game.

This funding bridges the gap when it comes to the cost of participation and transportation, the two largest financial hurdles. The second way in which the Foundation helps youth soccer players is through equipment donations. Our partner Good Sports is a leader in this regard. And finally, the Foundation makes an impact on our pitch builds. These builds work with Soccer in the Streets and the Station Soccer project, which started in 2016 and continues to grow with two new pitches in West End.

How do you quantify success?

It can be difficult to precisely define success in a community relations role. Our measure of impact typically goes by the numbers of people we reach with programming and dollars donated, just to name a couple of metrics. What’s nice for us is that by working with organizations like Soccer in the Streets, the US Soccer Foundation, and the Boys and Girls Club of Atlanta, the framework is in place to collect and properly present data. They have data and metrics around player development and coach-centric metrics, which go beyond pure participation numbers. The soccer-specific side lends itself to straightforward numbers, but to get a sense for how the community is reacting to our programming we need to rely on social metrics, and having conversations out in the field. We saw great success with our Unified Team. Having a Special Olympics Unified match that brought out 25,000 fans who were tailgating and energized was truly amazing to see.

We’re in it for the personal relationships not just to drive numbers or make fans for life. A great example is that one of our athletes on the Unified team has had the opportunity to participate with teams, camps, clinics to the point where she thinks that coaching may be a career option for her. To open people’s eyes to the game and provide them with the opportunities to grow personally and athletically is incredibly rewarding. So while we have a hodgepodge of tracking capabilities that allow us to pinpoint data around participation and reach, it also comes down to those individual experiences and reactions to our work to inform what we should be doing more of moving forward.

Do you feel that the Soccer in the Streets and Soccer Station success can be replicated in other cities?

Now that there is proof that ideas like this can work, it comes down to buy-in across the board. Here in Atlanta for this to work, it required a partnership with MARTA and complete buy-in from the MLS franchise. Space comes at a premium in urban areas, which means that local government needs to have a shared goal of freeing up space to make projects like this a possibility.

Once everyone was on the same page here, the “dead space” around public transportation made it possible to put down these pitches. I’m not sure there is a tailor-made area in every city like that or if it’s more unique to Atlanta. What is harder to say is how the community will react to it once it’s built. The support has been overwhelming here for the game of soccer. I’m not sure if that’s a testament to the melting pot that is Atlanta, but it was clear there was a major appetite for the game.

What’s next for Atlanta United?

There’s a lot of excitement around Station Soccer, specifically how we get all these networks and locations online together. Right now we have adult leagues, youth community leagues, and random pick-up play, so the question is how do we make it bigger than the game itself? Community centers, gardens, whatever it takes to make it a community hub of sorts. We’re in contact with Sanjay Patel, who brought this idea to life, and he’s always saying that we need the community to buy in. To broaden its impact on the community, we need to foster that buy-in, which will be a focus for us in 2019 and beyond.

And the cool part is that these things can come together quickly, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a brick and mortar community center.  It could end up being a large shipping crate that is retrofitted to serve as a center or some other creative solution. All these small improvements lead to a better experience for youth soccer players and give them the opportunity to play and interact with kids from all over the city.

How has support from local government impacted the success of your work with Station Soccer?

It’s been a huge help because aside from some of the logistical needs, the buy-in from the city adds credibility to the program and in turn that credibility makes it easier for the community to positively contribute. Furthermore companies look at the cooperation among everyone involved and as a result, they want to be a part of it.

How much of Atlanta United’s success in the community is tied to your owner Arthur Blank’s leadership and personality? 

His leadership has been instrumental to our success. I remember my first day working here our HR department discussed our core values as an organization. Listen and respond, include everyone, give back, and think innovatively, these values are built into the culture and come from the top. Having a singular vision from our owner is so critical because that’s simply not the case at every sports franchise. That vision touches his foundation, the Falcons and us as well.

It makes my job so much easier knowing that it is a priority to engage in a positive way with our community and those that support the franchise on a person to person level. It gives me the freedom to think outside the box and try new things because we value those qualities. I can’t say enough about the importance of having a leader like that at the top.