ATLANTA — Farewell, Georgia Dome. We knew you well … and you were decent enough, as domes go.
The Georgia Dome sees its last football game on Sunday, and — surprise, surprise! — it’s a game with high stakes. The NFC championship between the hometown Atlanta Falcons and the Green Bay Packers will be the final game played at the site of two Super Bowls, three Final Fours, the 1996 Olympics, a dozen high-stakes college bowl and playoff games, hundreds of high school championship football games, a Wrestlemania, and innumerable concert spectacles.
In its 25-year existence, the Dome has also hosted everything from the Rolling Stones to Southern Baptist conventions, boxing to Beyonce. The Dome has been many things in its day … and that’s always been its curse.
Here’s the thing: while the Georgia Dome has seen its share of championship moments, memories that resonated across the country and the planet, none of those moments belong to Atlanta teams. Nick Saban, Jerry Jones, Kurt Warner, Rick Pitino, Shaquille O’Neal, Kerri Strug—all of them have celebrated more championships in the Georgia Dome than the Falcons. Atlanta is one hell of a fine host — it’s the proper Southern thing to do, y’all — but all too often, that hospitality comes at the expense of the local team and its fans.
The Falcons have called the Dome home since 1992, but have made the playoffs only nine of those 25 seasons, and have advanced to the conference finals only four times: 1998 (won), 2004 (lost), 2012 (lost), and this year (TBD). And they’re not alone in misery.
Back in 2012, the Georgia Bulldogs, the closest thing Atlanta has to a secular religion, fell 5 yards short of beating Alabama for the right to play in the national championship. And then, 50 days later, the Falcons fell short of the 49ers — in almost the exact same spot on the field — for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
The Dome is the site of the most-attended regular-season game in NBA history —62,046 — but that’s entirely due to Michael Jordan, who played one of his last games in a Bulls uniform in Atlanta.
That’s one major reason why it’s tough to muster up much nostalgia for the Georgia Dome. Plus, not only is there no real on-field legacy, there’s no distinctive backdrop, no San Gabriel Mountains or Citgo sign or ivy-covered walls to give the Dome any unique character, not even a view of the skyline that Atlanta’s recently-vacated Turner Field featured. (That’s a mistake the Dome’s replacement isn’t making; Mercedes-Benz Stadium, rising like the Ghost of Christmas Future right next to the Dome, features one entire wall dedicated to a view of the city.)
Sure, there are some fascinating features to the Dome. The roof, known in engineering circles as a “Hypar-Tensegrity Dome,” combines a series of cables, rings, and only 68 pounds (!!!) of fabric. It makes for a flexible structure — strong enough to withstand with only minor damage a tornado that hit Atlanta in 2008, for instance — but it also wreaks havoc with acoustics. The Dome challenges musicians and robs college bands of their power, rendering the horns of Alabama or Louisville or Florida as sterile as piped-in Jock Jams. Hometown hero Ludacris performed at halftime of Saturday’s divisional playoff, and echoes off the Dome’s vast empty spaces left him all but unintelligible. (The crowd reacted more to the classic doo-doont, doo-doont bassline of “Move” than anything Luda gamely rapped.)
Still, the performance of the once-and-future Chris Bridges was, in many ways, the perfect way to close off the Dome. There’s a saying in the South that the most segregated hour of the week is 11 a.m. Sunday morning. The most integrated hour of the week comes two hours later in the Dome at kickoff time. The speakers alternate bro country and southern hip-hop, meeting the Atlanta audience’s needs with targeted perfection; it’s crowd-pumping via focus group. Ludacris crosses over smoothly and neatly.
Another reason it’s tough to shed too many tears for the Dome is the fact that the Dome’s younger, sexier, more enhanced replacement is rising right next door. Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be the pinnacle of 21st-century arena achievement — for a year or two, at least — boasting shiny new features like a retractable iris roof and 360-degree video screen. Atlanta’s all about the new, even if it costs well north of a billion dollars.
The Dome, on the other hand, never outgrew its 1990s origins, with a teal-and-salmon color scheme that persisted until 2008. The Georgia Dome is still a perfectly serviceable arena, but in the more-is-more climate of American sports, “perfectly serviceable” is less than useless, it’s an anchor. (Put it this way: now that you’ve got your iPhone 7, how nostalgic are you for the old click-wheel brick iPods of yore? Exactly.)
Atlanta was never going to get another Super Bowl in the Georgia Dome, and in the currency of the NFL, that meant the Dome was little more than a fabric-roofed roadblock. The Dome had to die so that Atlanta’s dream of chasing Big City status could live.
So after Sunday — and after half a dozen more motocross and monster truck events (this is the Georgia Dome, after all, not the Falcon Dome) — the Dome will close its doors once and for all, to await its inevitable destruction. It’s to the city of Atlanta’s credit, though, that the Dome is going out strong, riding a wave of in-town buzz unseen in Atlanta since the days of the 1990s Braves.
There are, of course, only two ways Sunday can go: either the Falcons win and head to the Super Bowl, or lose and head next door. A win sends the Dome out on the highest possible note. A loss brings yet another promising Atlanta season to yet another dead-stop halt. Somehow, either scenario would be a perfect ending.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.