Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Home in ‘College Football’s Capital City’

By Matt DeVeau, Project Associate.  

I recently realized that I’m an Atlanta resident.

Strange as that may sound there’s a good explanation. I moved here 3 1/2 years ago to attend school, and therefor adopted a “just passing through” approach to my relationship with the city. But nearly 20 months have passed since I graduated, my wife and I both have jobs we love, and we’re thinking about buying a house somewhere in town. So, yeah, it’s probably time to remove the “temporary” label.

This realization then got me thinking about what makes Atlanta a desirable place to live, beyond just career opportunities. In the words of the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community Project, what makes Atlanta “sticky” for me? Among other things, I thought of perhaps its most appealing cultural offering to a person such as myself – college football.

Atlanta has been called College Football’s Capital City, and there is ample evidence to support this claim. (And abundant opportunity for the city to further leverage it as a coordinated marketing opportunity!) Geographically, the city is positioned at the confluence of the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast Conferences – two of the five major college football leagues within the top division of the NCAA. Since 1994, it has played host to the championship game of the Southeastern Conference (SEC), by far the sport’s best conference with arguably its most fervent fans. It is also home to the season-opening Chick-fil-A Classic and the Chick-fil-A Bowl, which was a sellout for the 16th consecutive year this past December. And on January 28, after a long process, dignitaries will break ground on the new home for the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown near the Georgia Dome.

I think of these things as “social offerings” – things like entertainment venues and places to meet – which the Knight Foundation identified as one of the three main qualities, along with aesthetics and openness of opportunity, that attach people to place. While not exactly a physical meeting place, they nevertheless provide a social framework with which to grow closer to Atlanta. But to me, the intangible value that college football brings to Atlanta runs deeper. A brief examination of the city’s roads and front porches reveals why.

Like most communities, Atlanta’s vehicles are adorned with stickers and flags identifying the occupants’ preferred team. Its houses and condominiums are similarly draped with flags. But while the color schemes in most cities might be mono- or di- chromatic, it sometimes seems like Atlanta has the entire visual spectrum covered. Local favorites Georgia and Georgia Tech are of course well represented, but so too are southeastern schools like Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, LSU, and Tennessee.

This rich diversity of fandom certainly makes sports bars interesting, and it makes me feel like I am some place important – some place at which people from all over the Southeast have converged. This is, in fact, the case.

In its recent history, Atlanta has been a fast-growing metropolis attracting new residents from all over the country and world, though that trend has slowed in recent times. Out of curiosity, I decided to see how many of these newcomers came from the places near where many of these Southern football schools are located. I analyzed IRS migration data between Atlanta and 74 metro areas* in the nine states – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee – that formed the footprint of the SEC during the previous two decades. Between 1992 and 2010, Atlanta received 169,710 net new residents from these Southern metros, with positive net migration in 64 out of 74 instances.

This is obviously a crude metric. It doesn’t capture individuals who migrated to Atlanta from rural, non-metro areas, and it certainly includes a large number of people who don’t care about college football. But it does tell us that Atlanta has been good at attracting people from the college football-obsessed South. It’s not too great a leap to assume that this trend has helped strengthen and diversify the city’s college football scene.

Of course, sports fandom is just one of the things that these new residents bring to Atlanta, and it is nowhere near the most important. But I believe that their (presumed) allegiances – along with the city’s other college football assets – make this a more interesting place to live and, yes, call home.

* - I omitted Miami due to trends in international immigration skewing the data, New Orleans due to major outflow from the area following Hurricane Katrina, and Gainesville, GA due to its immediate proximity to Metro Atlanta.