‘Football’s Next Wave: USA’ pays homage to a generation that is doing football their own way in ‘The A,’ unlike anyone before them.
Members of the Kit Boys Club outside of their studio in Atlanta.
Throughout modern history, culture is usually advanced by the young and rebellious. By challenging conventional wisdom, they are able to create friction, which can spark the acceptance of something new. That is what’s happening right now in Atlanta, only not in the way you might think.
Note: Note: all footage was filmed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and before social distancing measures were introduced
While Atlanta has long been central to the convergence of artistic disciplines, while cities like New York and Los Angeles have received more attention and credit. Finally however, the ‘A’ is earning some popular acclaim. Whether through the influence of southern hip hop, or its burgeoning presence in the feature film and television arena (countless motion pictures productions are happening in ATL and, critically, Donald Glover’s Golden Globe Award for his FX series ‘Atlanta’), it seems the city’s influence is resonating across the country now more than ever.
Now, for the first time, football is being thrown into the mix. The city’s latest sporting obsession is their MLS side, Atlanta United, who turned heads by winning the league in 2018 in only their second season in existence. Much credit is due to the club’s efforts to nurture an authentic fan culture—craft beers, cosmopolitan food, and homegrown celebrity campaigners like Waka Flocka Flame, 2 Chainz, and more, have helped make an Atlanta United game the paramount place to be during the season. The combination of on-field success and a budding fan culture has blown the door open to new audiences and made football in the south unequivocally “cool”.
Akhil Russ, 18, player for Sons of Pitches.
Enter Akhil Russ, an Atlanta teen with serious football potential, who a few years ago might have opted for a different sporting direction entirely. For a long time, football was rejected by inner city kids in the US because the sport lacked the cultural cache, grit and promise of basketball or American football. It was a sport tied to suburban niceties, and soccer moms, and was perceived to lack an edge or point of view. To young urban American kids there was no apparent Allen Iverson of football, let alone a Michael Jordan. And if lacking grit or edge wasn’t enough to dissuade young potential, the pay-to-play system would exclude them outright. Kids like Akhil might shine on the pitch for a short while at youth level, but then they’d give in to friends calling them “soft”, or face being stiff-armed by expensive leagues and lack of facilities.
Fortunately for Akhil, in stepped Christopher Wedge, Founder and President of Sons of Pitches, who have been instrumental in developing young football talents in Atlanta by simply giving them a place to play. Founded in 2014, Sons of Pitches organize adult football leagues, pickup games, rooftop tournaments, and other dedicated active spaces available to anyone. The mission is that regular access to football will foster passion for the game in Atlanta, allow people like Akhil to readily develop their talents, and attract untapped potential throughout the city.
Sekou Thornell, 24, Founder of the Kit Boys Club
While the growth and development of the on-field game has been top of mind for many football supporters, another effect of football’s newfound popularity in Atlanta has been a rush of creativity off the field, with entrepreneurs clamoring to define how the game can contribute cultural and community excitement. Sekou Thornell is a founder of one of those heterogenous collectives in Atlanta. The Kitboys Club is a design group that quite literally blurs the lines between urban culture and sport, creating custom hybrid football kits and other bespoke football-inspired clothing. Sekou describes the Kitboys brand ethos as similar to that of a midfielders style of play. They create in the openings, and when they can’t see them they make their own. Sekou has surrounded himself with friends and old teammates. They bounce ideas off each other for inspiration, passing to each other in play. “Everything I did [growing up], I learned from 10 other players on the pitch,” Sekou says, “so it only makes sense to include that and translate that here.”
This passion has resulted in football suddenly being “cool”, thus earning a more lasting relevance. Not because corporations and institutions deemed it so, but because the young found its rebellious side. This is a strategy that many who are invested in the growth of the sport in America (*cough cough including us) are relying on. The cumulative effect of the art collectives, like Kitboys, introducing themselves to football culture, and support initiatives, like Sons of Pitches, is creating a new buzz about football throughout the country. You get the sense that football is finding its footing, not just in a Major League corporatized sense, but all over America. The next wave of football in the U.S. isn’t coming. It’s here.