Building a lasting relationship between a team and its city

Georgia O' Donoghue poses pre-match with King, a service dog in-training with America's VetDogs.

As the vice president of Business Operations, Georgia O'Donoghue plays a vital role in many of the most important decisions that go in to maintaining and growing the Atlanta United brand. We sat down with her for a one-on-one discussion as part of our Spaces Where We Play series.

Q: Atlanta United's fan culture is notable: Passionate, diverse, educated. It feels like the club just had it from the start, but surely it wasn't that easy. How did the team foster the passion, and what continuing work goes into making sure the fan experience is positive?

A: Our goal is to be a brand and a team that reflect this amazing city and that has been the vision from the start. Early on, we took a grassroots approach to connecting with the community. On any given weekend, you could find our president (then Darren Eales) and technical director (Carlos Bocanegra) at a local pub watching soccer with supporters, getting to know them and spreading the word about Atlanta United. This method allowed us to reach our fans where they were, and it became some of the best sounding boards this club would ever have.

The passion for soccer has always been in Atlanta, but our aim was to fill Mercedes-Benz Stadium with supporters all united around a brand that they felt reflected who they are: a growing, diverse and passionate city. Thankfully, the city has embraced us as their own, despite only being a few years old, and every day we strive to support our community in the same way both on and off the pitch.

You cannot find a more exciting 90 minutes than in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on a match day, fueled by a stadium full of supporters. What sets us apart is that you can also find the 5-Stripes taking over other major league soccer venues, thanks to our strong support on the road through our Season Ticket Member Away Match Benefits. You can find us at events throughout the city, like throwing a party at the Inman Park Parade. Or you can find us running camps and clinics for under-resourced youth throughout the community. Our fan experience remains the best in the business because there are so many ways to engage with us and we're constantly finding way to innovate and make a difference in the community.

Q: As we think about the Spaces Where We Play, how much of the in-game environment is dictated by fans and how does that change if the club isn't connecting with them proactively?

A: All of our in-game environment is dictated by fans, whom we call "supporters," and anybody who does it differently isn't doing it right. Not only do our players live and work in Atlanta where they make connections of their own with supporters, but our club is also actively engaging with our supporters on a weekly basis. Without their commitment, energy and undying love, Mercedes-Benz Stadium wouldn't be the fortress that it is today. I believe many brands make the mistake of being overly transactional with their customers; you have to develop a relationship with them in order to thrive together.

Q: Describe what it takes to build a world-class atmosphere at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and what that atmosphere is like for the players.

A: The world-class atmosphere at Mercedes-Benz Stadium requires thousands of people performing their jobs to near perfection, and somehow we make it happen 17+ times per year. It's not just the amazing video boards programmed with high quality content, or the field activations with the pyrotechnics and player interactions, it's every single staff member from security to guest services to food and beverage. It's the big details and the small ones, and the focus on both is what makes the experience memorable from start to finish.

We hear all the time from our players how our home field advantage has a direct impact on the game. We even hear from opponents about how the atmosphere at Mercedes-Benz Stadium is the best in the league, with the MLS Players Association voting it the #1 stadium environment.

Our team arrives to thousands of screaming fans right off the bus, followed by a raucous supporter section from the first whistle to the final whistle and topped off with one of the world's largest continuous video boards showing their faces and personalities. It's why they take a thank-you lap at the end of every match, win, lose or draw. They love to play at home.

Q: What does it mean to you to be VP of Business Operations, working to make sure your hometown club is excelling off the field?

A: I have huge pride in being from Atlanta. I believe being from Atlanta uniquely positions me as a vice president of Business Operations that deeply relates to and understands its market, its consumers, and the values by which we operate. Sports, both watching and playing, have been important to me as long as I can remember, and I consider it a great privilege to help lead my hometown club while working for an owner in Arthur Blank who brought a major league soccer franchise to my city.

Q: Community service is one of Gallagher's core values. What role does community play for Atlanta United and how does the club work to be active in Atlanta and the surrounding areas?

A: Community is one of Atlanta United's five pillars, and it plays a core role in how we make decisions on a day-to-day basis. We strive to be champions in business, in soccer and in our community, and our owner, Arthur Blank, has shown that it's possible to do all three.

The Atlanta United Community Fund, which is an affiliate of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, is constructing 100 mini-pitches across the state as part of its GA 100 campaign, while also providing free soccer programming to under-resourced youth throughout the metro Atlanta area. Through pitch-builds, equipment donations and programming, we aim to teach kids throughout the city and state the valuable lessons around teamwork and being active.

We also have many programs that our community relations department leads that are centered on our community, so for the sake of brevity I'll speak about one of my favorites: the Owen Klemme Conquer Kids Experience. Every year — as a part of our Unite and Conquer cancer platform to honor the resilience of pediatric cancer fighters and recognize Atlanta hospitals and non-profits for their fight against pediatric cancer and outstanding work in research and care — we surprise pediatric cancer fighters and their families with a special visit to the training ground, complete with team gear, autographs and time with the team. Following that day, they're treated to a once-in-a-lifetime VIP day with an Atlanta United player of their choice. Last year, they were seen at a local trampoline park, the Georgia Aquarium, Zoo Atlanta and more. The joy on the faces of these children and their families is something that warms the hearts of our entire organization and reminds us of what a force for good we can be in our community. That's what drives us forward in many of these initiatives.

Q: What's the biggest difference working in sports compared to your roles in digital strategy?

A: What I love about working in sports is the passion of the people and the work. We are all so committed to the cause and so connected to the brand that it makes coming to work an absolute joy.

Q: What expertise did you learn in your previous roles and when you worked as the director of Strategy and Operations and with the Fan Experience group that you apply to your role today?

A: True in fan experience and true in strategy work, the customer is the core of everything. If you can understand the consumers, then you can properly communicate with them. If you can properly communicate with them, then you can build products and experiences that they want. When you lose sight of the customer, you've lost sight of what matters.

Q: While progress is being made in women's sports, sports and entertainment still is a male-dominated industry. We'd love to hear about your experience as a woman in sports. How have you overcome challenges related to gender and what does it mean to you to be a woman working in an important role in sports?

A: It's important to reiterate that progress is being made. Yes, women are often outnumbered by men in the sports industry, but I also have as many female direct reports as I do male. I'm proud when I'm able to look around a room of our Atlanta United leadership and see a diverse group of people, and I don't view my gender as a challenge nearly as much as I view it as my strength. I often provide a different perspective than my male counterparts that is valued in my company from the top down. I love that I'm able to advocate for female associates and provide a vision for their future in sports that they may not have seen before.