ATLANTA — One day in the early 1960s, the mayor of Atlanta and a local sports columnist stood on a desolate patch of dirt just south of the city and deemed it ideal for a sports stadium that would propel Atlanta into the major leagues. Half a century later and two miles north, the owner of the Falcons – a team that didn’t even exist in the early ‘60s – pressed a button to open the roof on a model of a stadium that would vault the city to the highest levels of American sports prominence.
Two stadiums, one long gone, one just getting started, with a third in between. Big hopes, bigger promises. You don’t have to look hard to see the story of the city in the Falcons’ three Atlanta homes.
Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium: the best the 60s had to offer
By the early 1960s, Atlanta had a burbling minor-league sports presence, though little in the way of pro football anywhere nearby. Atlanta was largely a baseball town, and the city’s primary stadium – Ponce De Leon Park, home of the Atlanta Crackers – was a tiny bandbox with a magnolia tree growing in right field and train tracks running along the left-field fence.
Then-Mayor Ivan Allen Jr., observing the riots and racial strife wracking other cities in the South, tried to re-brand Atlanta as “The City Too Busy To Hate,” and rightly noted that pro sports can burnish a city’s image. The entire South was a pro sports desert; the closest NFL teams were Washington to the north and Dallas to the west.
One day, Allen summoned business leaders and Furman Bisher, columnist for the Atlanta Constitution, to a windblown vacant lot just south of the Capitol. Allen was trying to pitch Charley O. Finley, the owner of the then-Kansas City A’s, to move the team to Atlanta. This windblown hilltop, Allen declared, would be “the greatest site for a sports stadium in Atlanta.”
This would be the point in a documentary where a narrator says: “It wasn’t.”
Oh, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was serviceable enough, built for $18 million and opened for the Braves’ use in 1966. The stadium, eighty 32-ton beams connected by stretches of pale blue roofing and rows upon rows of brilliant blue and orange seats, perfectly exemplified ’60’s-era architectural style, for good and ill. One of the new breed of flying-saucer stadiums like Riverfront and Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, Atlanta-Fulton County was an anonymous donut that squatted beside the highway like a cement-and-blue tick. It was the kind of homely stadium that only locals could love, and even then reluctantly.
The Falcons came aboard later that year, and began a run of such profound mediocrity that they didn’t even post back-to-back winning seasons for the first four decades of their existence. The stadium didn’t help; shoehorning a football field into a baseball stadium’s geometry means that the seats at the 50-yard line are the farthest from the field itself.
Plus, the fact that the Braves held sway over the stadium meant that the Falcons played most of their games with half the field covered in infield dirt. “You’d come in from playing, and you’d be covered in dirt and grass stains,” recalls Buddy Curry, a linebacker with the Falcons in those days. “You’d be picking pebbles out of your calf muscles.”
The Falcons weren’t much to watch in Fulton County, but did manage one brief run of playoff magic, winning the NFC West twice and reaching the playoffs three times between 1978 and 1982. The team’s best season in Atlanta-Fulton County, a 12-4 record in 1980, vaporized when the Falcons lost to the Cowboys in the playoffs after – stop us if this sounds familiar – blowing a 24-10 fourth-quarter lead.
“It was very, very cold, watching football games there,” recalls William Pate, president of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors’ Bureau. “But it was a great stadium because it put us on the path to elevating the city in the sports world.”
As Atlanta grew, so too did its ambitions. The city wanted to host an Olympics and a Super Bowl, and neither one of those was happening with poor old Atlanta-Fulton County sitting there all by its lonesome.
Welcome to the Georgia Dome
The Georgia Dome was a monumental upgrade over Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in every way. Its name lacked imagination; its events did not. In its quarter-century of existence, the Dome would host two Super Bowls, an Olympic Games, a Wrestlemania, two Final Fours and the most-attended regular-season game in NBA history. (More than 62,000 people came to watch the Hawks play the Bulls because of a guy by the name of Jordan on the visiting team.)
It was an impressive arena, and Atlanta was the perfect host. Literally. The Falcons continued their run of lukewarm Southern pro football, though with a significant uptick after Home Depot’ founder Arthur Blank bought the team. Atlanta reached the playoffs in nine of the Dome’s 25 seasons, reached the conference finals four times, and the Super Bowl twice. Nick Saban, Jerry Jones, Kurt Warner, Rick Pitino, Shaquille O’Neal and Kerri Strug all celebrated larger victories beneath the Georgia Dome than the home team.
But much like Atlanta’s ambition to be bigger and better than what had come before, the Georgia Dome overreached. It was a vast stadium, so vast that sound could get lost in its far reaches. College bands lost their power, and crowd noise was so unpredictably spotty that the Falcons resorted to piping in crowd noise … and got busted for it. Listen to hometown legend Ludacris bounce beats off the far distant walls:
The teal-and-salmon color scheme, so vibrant in the ‘90s, aged about as well as everything else from that pre-cell-phone, dial-up era, and yet it remained the building’s color scheme until Blank kicked off a $300 million overhaul in 2007. Even with that work, though, the truth was clear: Atlanta wasn’t getting another Super Bowl, not as long as the Dome was in service.
“It became apparent that we couldn’t make changes we wanted to make the way Arthur envisioned them if we just did renovations. No. 1, they would be very costly, and No. 2, we weren’t going to change the stadium experience,” says Rich McKay, Falcons president and CEO. “We weren’t going to be in the position we once held of hosting major events if we stayed with the Dome.”
By 2007, it was clear that if Atlanta wanted another big game, it was time for the Falcons to trade up to a newer model.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium: More of everything
The Falcons considered various sites around Atlanta, including an old military base later purchased by Tyler Perry for use as a movie studio. In the end, the Falcons stuck close to home, settling on a space just south of the Georgia Dome.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium opened in August 2017 after 39 frantic months of construction and untold ulcers spawned by a roof whose real-world construction didn’t go as smoothly as the model that caught Blank’s attention years before. It’s an architectural marvel, and Blank’s ambition has paid off: Atlanta will host the NCAA national championship, the Super Bowl and the Final Four in consecutive years, with the World Cup on the horizon.
The Falcons have now wrapped two seasons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium with one playoff appearance. And even though the seats in the eastward quadrant of the stadium ruffle like a falcon’s feathers, the Falcons haven’t yet celebrated championships on this field, while Alabama and the Atlanta United soccer club have. Atlanta had hoped to be the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium, and for a time that appeared possible, even likely. But now Atlanta will have to wait for that next Super Bowl, whenever what may come, for that opportunity.
Blank, who helped build Home Depot into a worldwide juggernaut, wanted to create a building that would serve as both an icon and an inspiration, a stadium that would fight against the growing trend of stay-at-home fans. “We wanted to go from a fan-first perspective,” McKay says. “Whether it’s fan-friendly pricing, the size of the chairs, whatever, we were going to start there. From his Home Depot days, Arthur is a guy who’s said you should listen to the fans, and then respond.”
Every element of the building’s design, from open concourses to ultra-cheap food to the astonishing modular roof, is designed to provoke wows from fans. It’s literally almost 100 times more expensive than old Fulton County Stadium was, and it’s a perfect embodiment of the Atlanta ethos to build, build and build some more.
It’s also, if you view stadium trends through a societal lens, the latest in a long line of Atlanta arenas with ripple effects on the local communities. Despite several attempts, Atlanta was never able to get any kind of retail or dining presence built up around Fulton County Stadium, and that’s one of the reasons the Braves abandoned the area to move into the suburbs a couple years back.
The Georgia Dome required the removal of a dozen churches and the utter obliteration of neighborhood known as “Lightning,” documented in heartbreaking detail in this Bitter Southerner story. And the Falcons bought out two historic churches, Friendship Baptist and Mount Vernon Baptist, to make room for the construction of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. In the battle between history and progress in Atlanta, as we wrote in this space five years ago, progress is on a 150-year winning streak.
“Stadiums have increasingly become a very important part of Atlanta’s hospitality,” Pate says. “They’re incremental additions to the city’s portfolio. Fans that otherwise might not come downtown, or might not otherwise travel to Atlanta, will come to see Mercedes-Benz Stadium.”
Not much remains of the old ballparks. The magnolia tree at old Ponce De Leon Park still rises behind a T.J. Maxx near Atlanta’s trendy Ponce City Market. The foundations of the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium still stand in what’s now a Georgia State Stadium parking lot. The Georgia Dome’s footprint is now a grassy meadow used for tailgating – sponsored by Home Depot, of course.
You can use Mercedes-Benz Stadium as a metaphor however you like, as a testament to ingenuity and ambition that forever changed the city’s skyline, or as a high-walled monolith that buried some of the city’s history and casts a shadow over more of it. With Mercedes-Benz, Atlanta at last has a stadium that reflects the city itself, a place where the only constant is change.
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