Originally created 08/24/02

City excited about Falcons' new approach



ATLANTA - There's an urban legend that epitomizes the relationship between Atlantans and their NFL team: A disgusted fan leaves a pair of tickets under his windshield wiper, hoping someone will take them while he shops. A few hours later, he returns to his car to find the two tickets are still there - along with two more.

When Arthur Blank went before the league owners, seeking approval to buy the moribund Falcons franchise, someone asked - supposedly tongue in cheek, but not really - "Is something wrong with Atlanta?"

Mr. Blank didn't think so, having built Home Depot into one of the world's most prominent, profitable companies from its Atlanta base. With that business philosophy, he figured he could turn the Falcons around.

In a few short months, the results are nothing more than a minor miracle.

Instead of TV blackouts, the team is talking sellouts. Seats that have barely been used during the Georgia Dome's 10-year existence are now filled. When the Falcons take the field, they hear fans cheering for them - not the other team.

"That's something I've never experienced here," said cornerback Ray Buchanan, who has been with the Falcons since 1997. "It's going to be electrifying."

When Mr. Blank bought the team from the much-reviled Smith family for $545 million, he didn't have a lot to sell on the field other than player Michael Vick. So the new owner hired some experienced marketing people to find out what the city liked about its NFL team and, more importantly, what it didn't like.

They heard myriad complaints: ticket prices were too high, there was no place to tailgate, traffic was a mess, service at the dome was poor, the atmosphere on game day was depressing.

To get people's attention, Mr. Blank decided on a drastic measure. Even though ticket prices were already among the lowest in the NFL, he cut them right to the bone. Yes, you could actually buy season tickets for as little as $100 - $10 per game.

The response was stunning. The team says it has about 20,000 new season ticket holders, providing a base of around 50,000 and making it much easier to sell out the 72,000-seat Georgia Dome on a week-to-week basis.

"I'm not surprised," Mr. Blank insisted. "Basically, we just listened to the fans, gave them what they want and took away the barriers that were there before."

Mr. Blank knew that cheap tickets might get people in the building, but he wanted to make sure they came back. So he set out to improve the atmosphere inside and outside the Georgia Dome.

The Falcons lined up parking - and tailgating space - for 20,000 season-ticket holders, a 10-fold increase over previous years. They accomplished this by making deals with private lots within a half-mile of the stadium, securing the spaces at a discount that was passed on to their fans. The cost for an entire season: $80.

As for the stadium itself - which had all the charm of a mausoleum - Mr. Blank and his operatives wanted to improve the cold, sterile atmosphere. Team-colored bunting was draped over the concrete facades. Pictures of famous spots in Georgia were placed around the upper rim of the building. New scoreboards and crystal-clear video screens were installed. Even the smallest issues were addressed.

Offensive lineman Bob Whitfield said he wanted to run through smoke when the Falcons lineup was introduced before the game. He got it. Fans complained about having to watch commercials during television timeouts. Now, the video boards show shots of the crowd instead.

"Putting a winning product on the field is No. 1, but it's not just that," said Dick Sullivan, the team's new senior vice president of marketing. "It's more than a three-hour football game, just like the Kentucky Derby is more than a two-minute race. You go for the whole experience."