On Monday, the man charged with making the Atlanta Falcons’ pitch for a new stadium actually made a case for the current one. “We don’t need a building to play in next Sunday,” team president Rich McKay said. “The Georgia Dome is a good building. We love playing in it. (Falcons coach) Mike Smith has an incredible record in it.”
So why, if the Dome is dandy, was McKay sitting at a dais with Frank Poe, executive director of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, briefing the assembled media an hour after the GWCCA board unanimously approved terms that will surely lead to the building of a new stadium?
Because in sports as in life, new and shiny trumps tried and true. The Dome opened in 1992, and it’s a nice place two decades on, but by 2017 it’ll be gone, having been rendered superfluous by its billion dollar baby brother.
Said McKay: “We need a new stadium for the long term, and the natural time to do that is at the end of a lease.”
The Falcons’ lease with the Dome is due to expire around 2017, and that was their pressure point. They didn’t threaten to leave town – “There was not a 1995-type lever,” McKay said, speaking of the days when teams told cities to build a new stadium or else – but they did make it known they had no interest in re-upping this lease. That left the GWCCA, which runs the Dome, with a choice it didn’t know it would have to make: Do we ditch a perfectly sound building to placate our biggest tenant?
To their credit, Poe and associates forged a not-terrible solution. The Falcons stand to foot 70 percent of the $1 billion it will take to erect a new stadium, with public money – roughly $300 million from a hotel-motel tax that affects mostly non-Georgians – making up the difference. There are those who wonder if that $300 million wouldn’t be better used to upgrade infrastructure or further education, but this leads us to the unanswerable question: Why should ballplayers earn millions while schoolteachers make do with thousands?
In pro sports, a new stadium is almost always a shared venture, and far less public money will be earmarked toward the Falcons’ new home than was the case, say, in Indianapolis with the Colts and Lucas Oil Stadium. That’s as it should be: The Falcons are the ones who wanted this, and they should pay the most.
When this new-stadium balloon was first floated, the thought was that the GWCCA might be so cowed by Arthur Blank that it handed the famous owner everything he wanted. Instead the Falcons will settle for one stadium — they first wanted the Dome to remain in place just down the street, a notion laughable on its face – with a retractable roof (as opposed to an open-air facility). And the site itself, which hasn’t officially been determined, figures to be south of the Dome, not north.
The GWCCA didn’t stop the Blank Express, but it slowed the momentum to the point that a compromise could be reached. The Falcons get what they wanted most, which is the right to control nearly everything about their new stadium and bank the money that comes with concession and parking – “We want to touch the customer in every way possible,” McKay said, surely not least in the wallet — but the edifice will remain the property of the state of Georgia.
In these uncertain times, handing $300 million in tax money to fund a stadium that will be run by a team owned by a billionaire isn’t an easy sell, especially when the building that team occupies is presentable enough that it will, come April, stage the big-ticket Final Four. But the Falcons had leverage – they could move to Doraville and leave the Dome vacant on NFL Sundays – and they applied it. The GWCAA fought its corner and will get what amounts to a newer Dome. Maybe everybody won’t win in this, but there shouldn’t be many losers.
And if not … well, nothing is forever. The Falcons will be obliged to stay in their new home for 30 years. Sometime around Year 20, they’ll start angling for something bigger and brighter. That’s the way of our world. Everybody wants the latest iPhone, even if the old one works fine. Every professional team wants a new stadium, even if the existing place still looks pretty darn good.
By Mark Bradley