The story behind how Atlanta United’s Darren Eales became a star on TikTok
December 10, 2018 - Atlanta, Ga: Atlanta United President Darren Eales celebrates with fans as he rides with his family during the Atlanta United MLS Cup victory parade along Marietta Street Monday, December 10, 2018, in Atlanta. (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)
Atlanta United President Darren Eales, known for his teasing tweets when the club has signed a new player, added another social-media channel to his arsenal of antics: TikTok.
In a few short weeks, Eales (@dealesatlutd) has gained almost 120,000 followers. By comparison, Atlanta United has more than 130,000 followers. If Eales were an MLS club, in TikTok followers he would rank third behind his club and the leader, L.A. Galaxy.
“I’ve now had coming on 16, 17 years in the front office of the soccer industry,” Eales said. “You have your highs, you have the lows, but we’re in the entertainment industry, so I’m not someone who takes himself too seriously. So when the team said, ‘Look, you want to give this a go, let’s try some things. We think it could be fun.’ I’m always getting a laugh. So I said let’s give it a go.”
The account started before the game against Orlando on Sept. 10. Eales had fewer than 100 followers. Gathered on the field after the 3-0 win, Eales wouldn’t leave until he surpassed 100 followers. Soon, with help of Atlanta United player Jurgen Damm (@JurgenDammr25), who also is a TikTok star, Eales’ followers kept growing. The next week the World Cup committee visited Atlanta. Eales posted a few videos. His followers grew past 100,000.
The team that pitched Eales on the TikTok idea was Maria Ramsaier, Diego Pinzon and Matt Moore, who soon began pitching ideas for content. For every 10 pitches, Eales said they probably do one.
Among the most recent was Eales trying to re-create Josef Martinez’ single-season record-setting goal at Orlando, set in 2018, in honor of the striker scoring his 100th goal for the club last week.
The effort took seven takes because the person impersonating Julian Gressel couldn’t get the proper weight on the pass, and getting Miguel Almiron’s run exactly right wasn’t easy, Eales joked.
The idea, filmed at the team’s training ground, came from a show Eales watched in England called Fantasy Football League, where the hosts, with help from special guests, would re-create famous goals.
Eales said he couldn’t get Jonathan Spector, who now works for Atlanta United as head of international player recruitment and development, to re-create his role as one of the Orlando defenders Martinez beat to score his 28th goal.
“That (video) was something that I was really keen to do,” Eales said. “I mean, what an amazing achievement for Josef to get to 100 goals as quick as he did. And so I was like, it’ll be great, we should do one to then try and inspire our fans to do their favorite Josef goals. So that was something that was perfect (for TikTok).”
To see Eales singing Karaoke on TikTok, or to watch him take shots of liquor with supporters tailgating before a game, likely would shock the journalists who covered Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion, two clubs Eales worked for before joining Atlanta United in 2014. On a trip here a few years ago, some of those journalists discussed how they rarely saw Eales, much less spoke to him.
Now, Eales has all those followers on TikTok and almost 20,000 more on Twitter (@DEalesATLUTD). He said he was rarely seen or heard at the previous clubs in part because that’s how they chose to do business. But he was developing ideas, should he ever become the face of a franchise.
One thing he quickly realized after joining Atlanta United in MLS, is that work must be done to earn and keep supporters. It’s a crowded entertainment marketplace with numerous sports with longer histories and established bona fides.
“You end up making better decisions if, when you’re making it, it’s through the lens of ‘OK, how is this going to affect the supporters?’” Eales said.
Eales doesn’t know yet what’s next for him and social media. He said he is focusing on TikTok because he likes the connection it is creating with the team’s supporters.
“I feel like, from whether it’s digital, whether it’s from the communications, whether it’s through just the interactions with our supporters on game day, I feel like we’re getting back to how we built the club and what makes this such a fantastic club with amazing supporters and amazing media coverage that I’m so proud to be part of,” Eales said.