Falcons stadium talks a sensitive situation

It’s hard to make sense of the messages coming out of the very top tier of the Atlanta Falcons management these days when it comes to the team’s efforts to build a new stadium with public funds and cooperation.

Is it a case of “good cop, bad cop” – in this case it would be more like “bad cop, good cop” – or did Falcons president and CEO Rich McKay make a strategic blunder last week in his testimony before the Atlanta City Council’s finance/executive committee?

Here are the facts: much of the process thus far has gone on behind closed doors. Last Wednesday represented one of the Falcons’ most public forays on the topic at this juncture. In his comments before the council, McKay seemed to wield a stick perhaps more than he did a carrot with his bluntness in describing why he felt the proposed retractable-roof facility – with a price tag of some $948 million – would be necessary by the year 2017.

In no uncertain terms, McKay let it be known that if the city council did not vote in favor of the deal that the Falcons worked out with the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, then the Falcons would be forced to look at options elsewhere in metro Atlanta. Furthermore, he also let it to be known that the Falcons essentially had reached a limit in terms of the price tag and that an open-air stadium in the suburbs could be more affordable to them.

Give McKay credit for his straight talk. He didn’t beat around the bush and he attempted not to call his words a threat, simply a reality.

Yet in his bluntness, McKay wasn’t exactly doing any favors to Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed, who has a great deal of exposure on this issue. The idea of a stadium is not popular in the least, with most fans finding the Georgia Dome up to its task.

Reed is taking one for the team, so to speak, by advocating so publicly for the stadium. He is close to the business community, even a part of it. Before he was elected mayor, Reed was a partner at the law firm of Holland and Knight, which has 17 offices in the United States, along with those in Beijing, Bogota, Mexico City and Abu Dhabi. His clients included Clear Channel Entertainment, a media company, and American Airlines.

In other words, Reed is no anti-business populist. He has spoken in favor of a new stadium and, to date, hardly seems to have uttered a critical word of the concept. When many voters look at how else the city might spend that amount of money – such as on schools – the idea of the mayor’s backing bonds in favor of a football stadium is hardly an easy political stance. Reed is out on a limb.

That is why he probably didn’t appreciate McKay’s frankness. On Friday, Reed spoke to Atlanta public broadcasting radio station WABE (whose license is held by the Atlanta public schools) and said, “I mean, I just didn’t think very much of the comments. I think that the city of Atlanta hasn’t been anything but absolutely supportive of the Falcons and the Falcons franchise, and I thought the comment was disappointing.”

That led to the unusual development of Falcons owner Arthur Blank issuing a “clarification” in the form of a statement on Saturday – hardly a day for breaking news.

“We have a very good partnership with the Georgia World Congress Center, and we want that to continue into the future,” Blank’s statement read. “As a business, it is our responsibility to consider all of our options, but in this case, we are not making any alternate plans at this time.

“We are focusing all of our time and resources on finalizing an agreement for the new stadium in downtown Atlanta. We appreciate Mayor Reed’s strong support in helping us stay downtown, which is the right place for us to be.”

In essence, with his conciliatory words, Blank seemed to be saying, “I’ve got your back, Kasim.” Maybe Blank’s grand plan in all of this is for McKay to play the role of the bad cop while he plays the good cop.

McKay is a very smart man who co-chairs the NFL’s competition committee and has been touted in the past as a possible commissioner of the league. In addition, the Falcons are extremely careful as to their strategy in terms of securing a new stadium and were years ahead of their opponents with their effective lobbying in 2010 that got the state legislature to re-authorize the hotel-motel tax, which will serve as the new stadium’s funding mechanism.

That’s why it’s something of a head-scratcher as to how the Falcons might have misjudged the situation that led to Reed’s backlash. If there’s anyone they don’t want to alienate – unless they really do want an open-air stadium in the suburbs and not one with a retractable roof downtown – it’s Reed. Last week’s back-and-forth simply illustrates that the situation is incredibly sensitive.