TALE OF TWO CITIES
Both are state capitals, both have populations hovering around 1,500,000 and both enjoy reputations for being dynamic. Until recently, however, Atlanta had it all over Denver as a pro sports town. Hailed in the mid-'60s as the "Camelot of the South," Atlanta landed big-league teams in baseball, football, basketball and hockey. Denver was meanwhile settling for franchises in football and basketball, the latter in the supposedly inferior ABA.
But the fortunes of the two cities have changed. This was underscored by last week's news that North Carolina State's David Thompson, the nation's No. 1 college basketball player, has decided to spurn the Atlanta Hawks and sign with the Denver Nuggets. Having earlier outbid Atlanta for Marvin Webster, the Nuggets will show off their prize catches next season in the new 18,000-seat McNichols Arena, which will also house Denver's newly acquired WHA franchise. And demand for Denver Bronco season tickets is so heavy that the seating capacity of Mile High Stadium will be expanded from 51,000 to 76,000 for the 1976 season. Only in baseball does Denver remain minor-league.
By contrast, the situation in Atlanta is getting bleaker and bleaker. In a two-part series on the city's deteriorating professional sports scene, The Atlanta Constitution has complained that the Camelot of the South has become "Losersville." The Aaronless Atlanta Braves, floundering some 20 games out of first place, are averaging just 8,484 fans a game, a circumstance that prompted announcer Milo Hamilton to wonder on the air, "Is this a major league city?" The Atlanta Falcons hold the NFL record for no-shows—48,830 for one game—and last year's 3-11 record has caused season-ticket sales to slump. Although the NHL Atlanta Flames continue to draw well, they finished in the division cellar last season.
The Hawks' failure to land Thompson and Webster was a shocker. The NBA team had traded away local favorite Pete Maravich for, among other things, the draft choice it subsequently squandered on Thompson. Last season's 31-51 record was the worst since the Hawks arrived from St. Louis in 1969, and attendance in the 16,181-seat Omni averaged 5,008. For trying to sign Julius Erving three years ago—his NBA rights belong to the Milwaukee Bucks—the Hawks were recently slapped with a $400,000 fine by Commissioner Larry O'Brien. After the loss of Thompson, Atlanta businessman Simon Selig Jr., who had earlier announced his intentions of buying the financially troubled team, all but called off the deal.
Further evidence that Pel�'s crusade to popularize soccer in the U.S. (page 49) is bearing fruit came during the Brazilian's recent visit to the White House. When President Ford and his guest got around to autographing soccer balls, there was a plentiful supply on hand. Everybody even seemed to know what they were. By comparison, when Pel� paid a similar call on Richard Nixon in 1973, some last-minute scrambling was necessary to come up with one solitary soccer ball. It seems that organizers of the visit had mistakenly ordered two dozen volleyballs for the occasion.
Lest anybody get the idea that the recession has been utterly without benefit, consider the Dakota Dome, a sports complex that the University of South Dakota plans to start building in September. When the project, featuring a domed stadium that will seat 11,000 for football and 19,000 for basketball, was approved last year, the cost was put at $8.8 million, of which $5.2 million was allocated by the state legislature. The remaining funds were to be raised privately, which proved difficult when hard times hit.
Taking another look, architects recently decided that the Dakota Dome could actually be built for $7.2 million. Some of the hoped-for savings come from changing to "optional" such features as an intercom system and a swimming pool, but the lower figure also reflects a severe slump in the local construction industry. Ted Muenster, director of university relations, allows that the Dakota Dome will now be "a Pontiac instead of a Cadillac." When you think of the Rolls-Royce going up in New Orleans, it is nice to find one stadium that has a ceiling as well as a dome.