On the Pitch: Atlanta United Embraces Crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium as First MLS Club To Return to Full Capacity
More than 40,000 fans saw club’s 94th-minute winner vs. CF Montreal
The past 10 months have been a whirlwind for Major League Soccer. After last summer’s MLS Is Back Tournament in the Orlando bubble and the eventual return to empty home stadiums, the attendance of some clubs in the league are returning to pre-pandemic levels. Much like At the Ballpark, On the Gridiron, On the Hardwood, and At the Rink, SVG’s On the Pitch takes you into the control room with in-venue crews to understand what their job is like before, during, and after the official’s whistle is blown.
Years from now, when we look back at the return of sports from the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ll look at two specific games on the 2021 calendar: the first packed house in the history of Globe Life Field for Texas Rangers Opening Day on April 5 and Atlanta United’s 1-0 victory in the 94th minute in front of a full-capacity crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium May 15. The latter game had an electricity that had been missing from sports, and the production staff of AMB Sports + Entertainment was prepared to capture it all.
“From the moment I parked and entered the stadium, I could feel the passion and excitement in the air,” says Julia Chongarlides, director and executive producer, game presentation/stadium productions, AMB Sports + Entertainment. “Last year, we were a limited-capacity crew, so this was the first time our full-time game-day staff were able to get back together again in the same room.”
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Party at Full Strength: Game-Day Traditions Are Renewed
Welcoming fans back meant the resumption of some of the club’s traditions that go back to its founding in 2014. Supporters greeted the players as they arrived at the venue, and the production staff recorded the diehards’ pregame march as they headed to the stadium en masse.
“We covered our supporter march with the chanting and the playing of drums,” says Chongarlides. “Seeing all of our rituals come together was a great moment because we haven’t had those in over a year.”
Official attendance of this match vs. CF Montreal was slightly over 40,000 — the largest for an MLS match since the 69,301 at the club’s contest against FC Cincinnati on March 7, 2020. Those who made the trek to witness this historic moment were not disappointed. After both squads exhausted all 90 minutes of regular time, the game entered the final four minutes of stoppage time. With a quick service into the box, midfielder Marcelino Moreno levitated and smashed the game-winning goal home with a handful of seconds to spare. As the ball tickled the twine, the freight train’s horn sounded, and a sea of supporters erupted in utter chaos and jubilation.
“Everyone’s adrenaline was pumping throughout the entire match,” says Chongarlides, “but, when he scored that goal, we could hear everyone celebrating in our headsets. It was a storybook ending to a day we’ve been waiting for.”
Short- and Long-Term Changes: How Shows Have Improved, Increased Capability
Prior to May 15, the in-venue atmosphere was drastically different for the first two home matches against Chicago Fire FC on April 24 and Philadelphia Union on April 27. As with other games played before a limited crowd, the show was scaled down a bit and didn’t feature many of the usual elements.
“We stripped out a lot of content during our show,” notes Chongarlides. “We didn’t have sponsorship elements, fan interviews, or chances for people to win seat upgrades. We were forced to think outside the box, so our creative team re-imagined the striking of the Golden Spike. We thought of a way of pre-recording it with a video of the fans in the background on a big LED screen.”
With increased attendance permitted, Chongarlides also welcomed back her full team, whom she hadn’t seen since the 2020 regular season. In response to the boost in support, the crew enhanced the in-venue show with a slate of new visuals and content that are impressing fans in the seats.
“We have a new black kit this year,” she explains, “so the overall design of our graphics has changed. We had to start from scratch and redo all of our programming to build out our content for the giant Halo Board.”
In addition to Atlanta United’s show, Chongarlides helms in-venue production for Atlanta Falcons games. Back in October, the NFL side dealt with its own set of challenges as details of the pandemic shifted frequently. Without fans in the stands, a lot of remote technologies were used to incorporate family members and friends into the game presentation and to capture content for videoboard prompts. TVU Networks played a large role in the content gathering, so the team decided to deploy that technology for the MLS season as well.
“Since we don’t have to put antennas up to get our camera feeds back,” she explains, “a lot of our associates go out [to shoot video] with their phones. It has also been used by our social-media team to live-stream our team arrival.”
One of the biggest lessons learned over the past year is collaboration with different departments. During an ordinary year, AMB Sports + Entertainment is a large family, but, throughout COVID-era productions, constant communication and willingness to work together has helped the organization push through the tough times. On the technological side, this relationship has helped develop new ways of presenting information to soccer fans.
“We’ve been diving into Opta [sports data] this year to see how we can make advanced statistics visually appealing and redo our dashboard so that it is more efficient to have all of those elements in order,” says Chongarlides. “It was unfortunate that we had to go through the pandemic, but a lot of positive things did come out of it in the long run.”
The Ones Who Get It Done: Shoutout to Atlanta United’s Production Team
In Atlanta, it takes a full village to accomplish productions for two professional teams. Some have been with the crew since the start of the 2020 NFL season: Producers Grant Tiberghein, Jada Meadows, Steve Smith, and Chris Koch; Graphics Producers Garrett Hall and Kevin Nawoichik; and Production Coordinator Carly Smoltz. Others are fairly new to the crew: Lead Animator Tom McGuigan, Graphics Producers DaQuan Sims and Lexie Teas, Video Production Manager James Dawkins, Coordinating Producer Erika Arms, and Private Event Coordinator Brandon Pettaway. Regardless of length of service, the entire crew is coming together to play their part in the match-day experience.
“Everyone has had to adjust their schedules to make sure that our show is ready for all of our matches this year,” says Chongarlides. “We’re learning together, setting our foundation, and trying to build the best show that we can for our fans and for our team.”
Atlanta United will host the Philadelphia Union at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday, June 20 at 2 p.m. ET.