Innovation is a Team Sport
Atlanta United’s Catie Griggs Bridges Generations to Lead the Team Behind the Team
“I did play soccer. I was terrible.”
While she is a senior executive for Major League Soccer club Atlanta United FC, Catie was humble and honest about her personal soccer skills during this live session of the Disruptor Studio podcast recorded during this year’s DIG SOUTH virtual event. But it is clear she has a passion for the game and knows how to embrace the spirit and energy of this sport.
Catie Griggs is one of the most influential sports figures in Atlanta. She might not be a star player on the soccer pitch, but in her role as the head of business operations for Atlanta United FC, it’s fair to say that everything (outside of the actual soccer itself) rolls up under her leadership.
As a child, a college student majoring in international relations, and now as a professional, Catie has pursued a few intrinsic motivators. One is having the curiosity to try new things. Another is to do work that inspires people. And a third is to work hard to make sure everyone has a great experience. Perhaps that combination is what led Catie to become focused on pursuing a career in sports while she was deciding what to do with her MBA.
Despite claiming she’s not a soccer pro, Catie was drawn to sports because people care about it. It inspires people. It is one of the most globally beloved forms of experience. The teams that can cultivate and harness the emotion of their fans can do incredible things inside and outside their stadium. After starting her sports career in broadcasting, she shifted to the team side.
Catie is an Atlantan, through and through. She has raised her family here. She’s also helped to raise up a celebrated soccer community in and for the city. Her optimism and joy for her life and work in Atlanta do, truly, inspire.
Believe and Do (and Sometimes Miss)
In 2017, Atlanta United (ATL UTD) was a soccer startup in a southern city rooted in football and baseball. Building a successful soccer club in the market required a cultural shift of sorts. Fueled by possibility and a belief they could inspire excitement, the ATL UTD team launched with the swagger of a ‘big kid’ like the sports that already dominated the hearts of Atlantans. They believed they could succeed. They staffed to empower that belief.
It is not surprising that Catie’s pet peeve is apathy. The kind of engagement and success that this club enjoys only comes from a consistent level of care and commitment. Even as the soccer club has set attendance records and earned global recognition at a blistering fast pace, it hasn’t ever sat back on its laurels. That’s largely because Catie and the other members of the ‘team behind the team’ believe success is earned.
She leads a diverse, passionate group of intellectually curious, creative people who have the confidence to voice and try new ideas because they care. With customary humility, she says, “I don’t want to be the sole repository of good ideas. That’s not possible.” Innovation is seen as a part of everyone’s job, regardless of position or title. For Catie, a culture that encourages people to think creatively, speak up, and fail fast starts with giving everyone the opportunity to “really try new and different things.”
The need to innovate has only gotten bigger in the COVID shadow. As Catie continues to build a global brand celebrated for compelling and innovative fan experiences, she has chosen to see this need to think about things differently as a silver lining. The team has taken this pandemic pause to think about why they do things the way they do, and how they could do them differently. For an inspiring leader like Catie, this time is a chance to learn, try, grow, and evolve the club into its next phase of maturity. The approach is possible because of the club’s courageous, open culture and its young, diverse, optimistic, brave, and imminently creative team.
Listen First and Invite Everyone
Until COVID hit, ATL UTD sold out every match. If you’ve ever been, you’ll know why. On match day, Mercedes Benz Stadium is electric. People from different backgrounds, cultures, races, and ages come from across the city to celebrate the beautiful game together. This spirit of inclusivity is intrinsic to the sport of soccer, and it has made ATL UTD one of the fastest growing sports brands in the world and the heart of a strong community from the beginning.
Soccer is also incredibly fun and engaging. Catie argues persuasively that the fan experience is as much the product as the game itself. There’s a ‘student section’ energy in the stands that captivates even those who didn’t arrive as soccer fans. The community has grown organically as fans brought family and friends, who learned to care about soccer, and then brought others. It’s a marketing dream come true. And it’s because it’s a truly enjoyable experience that welcomes everyone.
In fact, from the start, people came because members of the ATL UTD leadership team invited them. They (including club president Darren Eales) would visit pubs on Saturday mornings with the sole intention of sitting with fans, asking what they want, and really listening. Not surprisingly, these earliest ‘focus group’ fans are the diehards. There is a depth of ATL UTD love that most brands (across any industry) would envy. Fans have team tattoos, they bring others, they bring energy. The club is successful because its fans are successful. And the fans are successful because the team behind the team is creative, innovative, optimistic, and collaborative.
At this inflection point in the club’s maturity, the leadership team continues to listen to the fans just as much as they ever did. As they have from the start, the fans hold the answers. When they feel heard, they’re motivated to contribute. And when they do, the community of ATL UTD fans fuels a team that is energized and inspired to play and win.
If the players are the heart, the fans are the body. Together, they are the community that Catie continues to grow inside Mercedes Benz Stadium, Atlanta, the soccer industry, and beyond.
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