ATLANTA – Georgia Tech and Tennessee brought the opening fortnight of college football to a close Monday, but the star of the night was the venue.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium has instantly become the crown jewel of Atlanta sports and the envy of anyone planning to build a new facility. With a price tag of $1.5 billion shared by taxpayers and Falcons owner Arthur Blank, it should be special.
Good luck outdoing it.
Scouring all six levels and roaming in and out of various luxury suites before Monday night’s game, there doesn’t seem to be a bad seat in the house. Even the rafter sections in the 300 level have amenities like the 100-Yard Club and the Skybridge overlooking downtown Atlanta to add value to the experience.
Anywhere you sit, the massive 63,800-square foot halo video screen that rings the roof opening above the entire field is perfectly visible without the same distracting element of the massive board suspended over the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium. Jerry Jones is already kicking himself that he didn’t think of it.
You’d be hard pressed to find any of the 76,000 fans who filled each of the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff games this weekend to offer up a single complaint.
“One of the purposes that we established early on in building the stadium is that it would be the home for many great events,” Blank said before Saturday’s marquee showdown between No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Florida State.
The facility has already fulfilled that mission before the primary tenants even officially kick off the NFL season.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium will play host to the championship game of the College Football Playoffs on Jan. 8, 2018. On Feb. 3, 2019, the Super Bowl will return to Atlanta for the first time since 2000. Then the NCAA Final Four will be played here April 4-6, 2020.
“First time in the history of America where a complex has had the opportunity to entertain those three wonderful U.S. events in a row,” Blank said of the three biggest neutral-site championships in American sports.
Considering Georgia already is home to the world’s greatest major venue annually with the Masters Tournament at Augusta National, it’s only fitting that the capital city should have the grandest football facility.
To be honest, I was on the record saying Atlanta didn’t need another football stadium. The Georgia Dome has consistently provided one of the best atmospheres in sports since it opened in 1992. It wasn’t old enough to drink when Blank coaxed a half-billion-dollar commitment from the city to build him a new palace right next door.
Unlike the Braves fleecing the taxpayers of Cobb County for a new baseball park that was entirely unnecessary and offers nothing appreciably different from 22-year-old Turner Field, Blank was willing to put a significant amount of his own skin in the game to get Mercedes-Benz Stadium built.
He ended up ponying up $1 billion on his own to make it unlike anything that’s been built in America – a substantially steeper overall price tag than the relatively modest $214 million that it cost to build the Georgia Dome only 25 years ago.
Much of the cost overrun out of Blank’s pocket went into an elaborate retractable roof that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world and still isn’t functioning according to plan. Blank, however, assures everyone it will be fully operational before the end of the Falcons’ initial season in their new home.
“We anticipate during the fall the roof will open and close – we’ll be playing a number of games here that the roof will be open,” Blank said.
It’s everything under that roof that will satisfy the customers who file through the turnstiles for football, soccer and anything else it hosts. The congestion endured in the concourses of most stadiums doesn’t exist here, with wide areas all the way around every level with an abundance of places for fans to mill about.
While it technically seats 215 fewer fans than the Georgia Dome, the 71,000-plus who get inside will find eight times as many restaurants/bars (24), 65 percent more concession sales points and 1,264 beer taps compared to only 30 in the old dome.
There is club seating all over the place, from two levels of 190 private corporate boxes that ring all but one end zone to a pair of large Harrah’s Cherokee Casino suites on opposite 50-yard lines on the 200-level.
Then there are the opulent four field-level suites that are hard to believe. The massive Mercedes-Benz and Delta suites span between the 20-yard lines, opening out to porches on the field behind both team sidelines. They sport their own concessions and bars and lounges covering about the half the size of the field with private access to the prime club seating above them.
A lot of thought went into making this a place the Falcons will call home for many decades without requiring upgrades. Every time Blank saw something somewhere that he liked, he opened his checkbook and made it happen here.
My favorite touch is the measure of respect shown to the Georgia High School Association, which will call this home for the championship games every December. A massive corner of the main concourse is devoted to “Homegrown Legends,” with the helmets of every GHSA school displayed and the most recent state champions in every classification honored at the top.
In every way, Mercedes-Benz Stadium is a first-class facility that fans all across Georgia will be proud to enjoy for generations.