What’s on the Atlanta Falcons’ Christmas Wish List? A New Stadium!

Atlanta’s NFL franchise, the Falcons, need a new stadium. Why? to keep up with the other markets. That’s the reason delivered by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell last month as a keynote guest of the Atlanta Rotary Club.

The Georgia Dome (pictured) is part of the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC), an enormous complex of meeting spaces, convention halls, ballrooms, restaurants, an arena and the Georgia Dome that’s surrounded by hotels and has its own MARTA rail station. The Georgia Dome is just twenty years old and the NFL wants to put it out to pasture in favor of a new stadium.

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The Atlanta Falcons will play 10 games (8 regular games plus 2 pre-season games) in the Georgia Dome this year. That’s 10 hours of football each year. The average NFL stadium seats 69,305 people. We’re going to spend approximately $330M for a stadium with a retractable roof so 69,305 people can watch 10 hours of football?

If you have a look at at the “average NFL stadium” link above, you’ll notice that the Georgia Dome is one of just five domed stadiums in the league. There are now four facilities with retractable roofs. The Georgia Dome is a great asset for Georgia compared to other NFL markets – they’d love to have a domed stadium yet we’re being encouraged to abandon ours.

One of the great things about the Georgia Dome is… its dome. The NFL season starts in early August when most Georgians are swatting mosquitoes and languishing in that knock-out combination of Georgia heat + humidity. There will be (literally) a few weeks during the season when the weather is pleasant; otherwise, it’s a challenge. As college football fans, we sacrifice our comfort at most games: burning up in the early fall and freezing as the football season rolls into November. That’s why we love attending games in the Georgia Dome!

The Georgia Dome doesn’t stay busy year-round. It has its share of events though it was built exclusively for football. That’s one of the things that makes it a great facility for the Falcons. It’s a challenge for any other event – try selling 71,228 tickets to an event.

The GWCC website includes a “New Stadium Timeline” page that tracks the progress of the effort. The 2010 study by the Barrett Sports Group shows that the Falcons leaving the Georgia Dome would take away 44% of the total attendance at the facility. Other events include things like graduations that just don’t fill the building and generate the revenue of an NFL game. How will we be able to maintain the Georgia Dome if the biggest revenue generator is given away?

Maintaining the Georgia Dome isn’t just about keeping it clean and ready for events. The facility cost $214M to construct and last year, the GWCC refinanced $112.6M in bonds for the facility – we’re still paying for it. If the financial model for the Georgia Dome is broken when the Falcons move out, we shouldn’t be surprised when the GWCC comes asking for money to service the debt and maintain the building.

Memphis, Tennessee learned a very painful lesson when its City Council approved the FedEx Forum in downtown Memphis. It seems the non-compete language in the agreement was never carefully considered so now the  Memphis Pyramid arena sits vacant. The city has been trying to figure out what do to with it. The economic engine that was home to University of Memphis basketball AND an NBA team is now idle. It’s a financial drain on the city and an iconic reminder of poor decision making.

We have no doubt that Arthur Blank built his own financial model for the Atlanta Falcons before he purchased the team. Business models for pro sports are very complex. Just having rights to the concessions at a stadium can make or break a model. We need more than short articles and two-minute news segments about the proposed stadium and its impact on Georgia’s finances.

The GWCC needs approval of the Georgia General Assembly to increase its ability to issue bonds, from $200M to $300M, for the new stadium to be possible. Roger Goodell and Arthur Blank are making the best of a great Falcons’ season. And who can blame them? Still, we can’t make a thirty-year decision about a new stadium based on a better-the-average season from our NFL franchise. From a planning standpoint, we need a solution for the Georgia Dome. We can’t just put a “for sale” sign in the front yard.

Image by Ross Catrow used under creative commons license.

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