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Hotlanta fans are lukewarm Vick makes Falcons a hot ticket, but attendance lags at city's other major-league attractions

Atlanta can look around its sports landscape and have a sense of pride.

The Braves are annual winners, the Thrashers and Hawks are young, exciting teams while Michael Vick brings the Falcons star power. With so much to love about Atlanta pro sports, why are the local fans such an apathetic bunch?

The Braves don't sell out playoff games, hockey hasn't really caught on and the NBA's Hawks have to market the opposing team's stars to boost attendance. If it weren't for Vick, arguably the city's most popular superstar since Dominique Wilkins and Deion Sanders, the Falcons' attendance figures would undoubtedly hover near the bottom of the NFL. At least in Los Angeles fans arrive late and leave early. In Atlanta, they just don't bother.

The Falcons (1-1) play the Buffalo Bills (1-1) at 1 p.m. today at sold-out Ralph Wilson Stadium.

There are several theories on Atlanta's indifferent nature when it comes to pro sports. There are numerous entities dueling for the fans' discretionary dollars with four pro teams, several college programs, arena football, minor league hockey and an energetic night life. It's primarily a city of transplants where someone from Cleveland or Cincinnati with few emotional ties to the local teams can follow the Browns and Bengals daily via the Internet and satellite television.

Yet two reasons stand out: Before pro sports arrived in the mid 1960s, Atlanta was a college sports town, and the franchises' losing ways steer fans toward other options. Lovable losers fly in a place like Chicago, but not Atlanta.

Whatever the reason, Atlanta's infatuation for its pro teams doesn't compare with cities like New York, Philadelphia, or Detroit. For example, the Braves' winning longevity -- 13 consecutive division championships -- is unmatched and while the club has drawn more than 2 million fans for 14 consecutive seasons, it has endured decreasing attendance for six consecutive years. That streak will probably end this year.

"There's a lot of good fans there but there's also those bandwagon jumpers that every city has," said Bills wide receiver Jonathan Smith, an Argyle, Ga., native who played at Georgia Tech. "It's a big city so the majority of the time people might find something else more important than going to the game that night. You've got to have your loyal fans that show up for your Hawks games and Thrasher games."

Neither franchise is steeped with a lengthy history in the city. The Falcons, Braves and Hawks have been in Atlanta less than 40 years and Thrashers started in 1999. Long before pro sports arrived in Atlanta, schools like nearby Alabama and Auburn ruled the SEC. In 1990, the same year the Braves started their run, Georgia Tech shared a football nationalchampionship with Colorado and the men's basketball team advanced to the Final Four.

"Every weekend between Georgia and Georgia Tech you're taking about 140,000 people watching football every Saturday," said Atlanta sports talk show host Mike Bell. "There's a real passion for SEC football and ACC with Georgia Tech."

Yes, this is football country, and none of the region's big-time colleges has a problem filling its stadium because all of them -- including Georgia, Auburn, Clemson, Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee -- are within three hours by car of downtown Atlanta.

"You can see on all highways on Saturday morning or Friday night with folks with their flags on their cars rolling out," said Darryl Ledbetter, who covers college sports for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "They're going to Auburn, Clemson, Alabama or wherever, and the highways are packed."

For the pro teams, a long legacy of losing doesn't help. The miserable Hawks are the Los Angeles Clippers of the East, haven't qualified for the playoffs since 1999 and have been largely irrelevant since trading Wilkins in 1994.

"The only sport Atlanta really doesn't get behind is basketball," said Bills running back Joe Burns, who attended Georgia Tech. "If you go to a Hawks game, you might be the only one there."

The Thrashers have never made the playoffs and their attendance has suffered. They averaged 15,145 a game in 2004 -- 21st in the 30-team league -- the season before the lockout. Considering Braves fans stayed away in droves after the 1994 baseball strike, it will be interesting to see if Thrashers fans return.

The Falcons have never enjoyed back-to-back winning seasons, but they are bucking the attendance trend.

For the fourth consecutive season, the team has sold out every home game and will set a franchise record of 29 consecutive sellouts Nov. 13 against the Green Bay Packers. Between 1971 to '74, the Falcons had 28 consecutive sellouts. Owner Arthur Blank had something to do with the sellouts after slashing ticket prices, but it helps to have the game's most vibrant player in Vick.

The city has hosted several big-time events recently. The Super Bowl has been to the Georgia Dome twice and the city is bidding for a third in 2010. The men's Final Four came in 2002 and the women came the following year.
The city still beams over the 1996 Summer Olympics. So, overall, it ranks high as a quality sports town.

But the pro sports landscape is barren.

"When you underachieve," Bell said, "the fans tune out."

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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