Blank discusses new stadium for Falcons, MLS

Falcons owner and chairman Arthur Blank laid out his case for a new stadium with a retractable roof that could open in five years in the team’s annual “State of the Falcons” meeting with season ticket holders at the Buckhead Theatre on Wednesday by saying in part that it could help to attract a Major League Soccer franchise, help the city host Super Bowls, as well as become a potential site for World Cup soccer games.

Blank asked fans not to ask questions on the subject during a question-and-answer session – one did in a somewhat related way by asking about ticket prices – but he spoke on the subject for several minutes to update fans.

Late last month, officials from the Falcons and Georgia World Congress Center Authority, which runs the 20-year-old Georgia Dome, caused something of a stir when they announced that the cost of such a stadium would be $947.7 million.

“A new stadium is going to be important not only for playing football, but if we eventually want to have Major League Soccer in Atlanta we need a new stadium,” Blank said in a video archived on the team’s Web site. “If we eventually want to be considered to not just play in a Super Bowl but to host a Super Bowl, we will need a new stadium. If we eventually want to be a consideration for a World Cup – and the World Cup will come back to United States’ soil — we need to have a new stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. If we want to continue to be considered for the NCAA Final Four, we need a new stadium in Atlanta.

“I can give you examples, many examples, a lot of the existing events that if we didn’t get a new stadium in the next five, 10, 15 years, we would not be a player. The governor (Nathan Deal) understands that, we certainly understand that and the authority understands it, as well. So that’s one challenge is to get the stadium done.”

The United States bid to host the World Cup in 2018 and 2022, but lost out to Russia, which won 2018, and to Qatar in 2022. Atlanta last hosted a Super Bowl in 2000, an event which was marred by ice storms and cold weather. The city and the Falcons have bid to host games since then, but never won. The NFL generally rewards cities that build new stadiums, regardless of location and weather – Indianapolis, Detroit and New York being prime examples – with a Super Bowl.

Atlanta has been in a five-year rotation to host the NCAA Final Four for years. It will host the event in 2013 at the Georgia Dome. Because events such as the Final Four – and when a city hosts a Final Four, it hosts a regional final the year before, as Atlanta did this past March, as a sort of practice go-around – the Southeastern Conference football championship and Chick-fil-A Bowl have such importance to the city’s hospitality industry, a retractable roof is necessary. Over a five-year period, these events bring in hundreds of millions of dollars, according to economic impact studies conducted by Georgia State University on behalf of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

Blank said the team explored the option of a two-stadium solution with the GWCC – continuing to operate the Georgia Dome alongside a new open-air facility – but together they decided on a one-stadium solution.

“We’ve worked very hard under the leadership and direction of (team president and CEO) Rich McKay with a lot of people involved, with the GWCC the last couple of years to develop a win-win formula,” Blank said. “That means a win-win formula in this case is not an easy win. It has to win for our fans, it has to win for the state of Georgia, it has to win for the city of Atlanta, it has to win for the citizens and the communities that surround the building we’re building, so there’s a lot of people here that are at the table we have to make sure it’s not just a win-lose or a win-win — it’s got to be a win-win for a bunch of folks involved in this.

“So Rich has done a fabulous job. The Congress Center and the state have been committed to this. I happened to speak to the governor earlier today. I will tell you he’s on board. The mayor (Kasim Reed) is talking to our board of advisors and our group this coming Tuesday night. He has spoken to us before about his support, many of you have heard about his support in the past. We recently came to the conclusion that a single – we were working on a dual-stadium solution, as a lot of you have read — we have recently come to the conclusion, along with the Congress Center, that the most viable politically and probably publicly salable proposition is a single-stadium solution. So it will have a retractable roof” – at that point Blank was interrupted by applause.

He also shed some light on the preferences of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

“Believe me, we were not in love with the retractable roof,” Blank said. “Our preference was to play in an open-air stadium” at that point he was interrupted by boos. “But we listened and we responded, which is really what we’re about. We’re not about our own views. We’re not about – Commissioner Goodell felt open-air is the way football should be played, it’s very traditional in the Southeast. You go to Georgia, Georgia Tech, Auburn University — wherever it may be — that’s how football is played. But we’re responsive to our fans, we’re responsive to the state, we’re responsive to the other events that need to be held inside this new stadium, so we’re in a good place. We’re not finished. We’re working on it. We’re working very closely on it. So we’ll continue to move that along.”

Input from the commissioner’s office is important because the league’s G-4 program, which came out of its new collective bargaining agreement, offers teams up to $200 million to help finance new stadiums. Through a reauthorization of the state’s hotel-motel tax by the Georgia General Assembly in 2010, the project could get another estimated $300 million. At this juncture, the city of Atlanta is not being asked to help finance the project – perhaps to help steer it around a potential source of controversy.

When questioned about ticket prices, Blank at first deferred to McKay.

“We’ve done nothing that models what the price of a ticket would be in 2017,” McKay said of a potential new stadium’s opening date. “I can assure you that. I think Arthur has been committed and told us over again that the access to the stadium and (with) the fan base that we have, we have to remain committed to and we will.

“I can’t tell you today that your ticket will go from $36 to $38. I don’t know, but I can assure you that there’s not going to be a model that drives it based just on revenue. It’s going to be driven by access and your ability to be a Falcon fan. We’ll honor that.”

Blank then interjected. It seems a sensitive subject is whether fans who live in the majority African-American neighborhoods near downtown where the stadium would be, would not be shut out.

“How the ticket prices end, I don’t know and Rich doesn’t know,” Blank said. “Obviously, we’re fooling around with different levels of cost and construction, etcetera. The important thing I think you should know is we want to make sure inside the stadium reflects the same distribution of population that we have on the outside of the stadium. We want to make sure we represent all of Atlanta and not just a certain level of Atlanta — everybody of Atlanta.

“That’s going to take a tricky design, a thoughtful design, but we’re committed to doing that…. So you have that commitment. We’ll be as sensitive as we can possibly be in terms of ticket prices.”