SportsPulse: From Atlanta, Trysta Krick tells you everything you need to know as Super Bowl week begins. USA TODAY
ATLANTA — More than any other singular reason, the world’s biggest annual sporting event is here this week because of a sparkling new stadium and a city that was willing to generate hundreds of millions of tax dollars to help pay for it.
And Mercedes-Benz Stadium is indeed an architectural marvel with its distinct angular panels on the outside, a roof that opens and closes like an oculus and a one-of-a-kind, 360-degree wraparound scoreboard. Visually striking and functional, it will eventually host every major national event from the Final Four next year to likely the World Cup in 2026.
“It’s the finest sports and entertainment facility in the world,” said Dan Corso, president of the Atlanta Sports Council.
In the same breath, the venue that will host the 53rd Super Bowl is also a monument to Atlanta’s unique proclivity for building new stadiums at great public cost, even though the old ones weren’t that old to begin with.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium, site of Super Bowl LIII between the Rams and Patriots.
(Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)
Within the past 22 months alone, the Atlanta metro area has debuted $2.4 billion worth of new/renovated stadiums for its three professional teams, each of them outfitted with a bonanza of revenue-generating suites and luxury amenities. Next door to Mercedes-Benz, State Farm Arena was gutted to turn a standard NBA arena into a place built for what Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin calls “the experience economy.” And in the case of the Atlanta Braves, who were lured from downtown to a suburban area northwest of the city with a $390 million investment from Cobb County, a move to a new stadium allowed the team to become developers of a shopping, dining and residential area around the park that allowed the team to boost its bottom line.
“Economists sometimes call this the novelty effect,” said J.C. Bradbury, an economics professor at Kennesaw State (Ga.) University who has done significant research on stadium funding. "It’ll bring in more people and therefore earn more revenue, and sometimes that’s because not only is it just new and exciting but it’s built to meet tastes of the times. So obviously if you’re an owner, you’re going to want this. And in Atlanta’s case, there were unique factors going on.”
One of those factors: a willingness, for better or worse, to spend a lot of public money even though the Georgia Dome was only 25 years old, Turner Field just 20 and State Farm (formerly Philips Arena) a mere 18.
Though none of the buildings were particularly old by most standards, they were viewed as being out-of-date for various reasons, and in the case of the publicly owned Georgia Dome, did not allow the Falcons to control revenue year-round.
And ultimately in every case, the tried-and-true appeal of economic development tied to sports won out politically over a robust debate about the appropriateness of shoveling hundreds of millions of dollars to billionaire owners.
“When you talk about the millions of dollars that will come into the city from tourists that we otherwise wouldn’t have when we attract these worldwide events, we have to make sure our facilities are up to par,” said Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was a city council member when Atlanta approved $200 in bonds backed by a hotel-motel tax for stadium construction plus hundreds of millions more over 30 years from that tax to offset operation and maintenance. “I think it’s well worth the investment, and when you look at the long-lasting impact and our ability to showcase Atlanta, sometimes you have to spend a little money to make a little money.”
Whether the investments in those new venues actually generate the jobs and growth they promised is a matter of contention among economists. A recent study commissioned by the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce through Georgia Tech’s Center for Economic Development Research estimated that SunTrust Park and the development around it had a positive economic impact of $18.9 million a year.
That assumption, however, relies on things like property taxes of people moving into the county as a result of the ballpark. The issue of whether the county’s near-$400 million investment in the Braves was wise has been toxic politically for the people who made it (the county chairman who led the deal was trounced in his bid for re-election in 2016).
“Economists have studied the economic impact of sports stadiums many times over decades, and study after study finds the same thing — the economic benefits claimed aren’t high enough to justify the subsidies given,” Bradbury said.
On the other hand, the Braves have undoubtedly enhanced the experience for their fans. Though Turner Field was fully functional, retrofitted for baseball after it was build to host the 1996 Olympics, it was located in an area surrounded by little more than parking lots. It was also somewhat difficult to access, particularly for fans driving in from the northern suburbs, where the Braves determined most of their ticket-buyers lived. Now, a Braves game includes an enhanced pre-game and post-game experience because of The Battery, a collection of bars and restaurants right around the ballpark that is part of the mixed-use development the Braves operate as a branch of their business.
“This model is so interesting and alluring we’ve … sports teams that have come through Atlanta with a specific intent to talk to us about the way we’ve structured ourselves and the way we built The Battery Atlanta and acted as the master developer,” Braves president and CEO Derek Schiller said. “We wanted to build a complete experience for our fans that extends well beyond the point in time where they enter the gates and walk into a ballpark.”
That’s also part of the long-term plan for the Hawks, who received $110 million for their renovation from an airport car rental tax and another $32 million from the city’s sale of Turner Field to Georgia State University. Now, the arena includes modern bars and restaurants, suites with better sightlines, areas with sofa-style seats, a barber shop that overlooks the court and two TopGolf simulators that can be rented by large groups.
“For people of a certain age, the idea of sitting for three hours and watching a game seems a little archaic,” Koonin said. “The idea was to create experiences in the building that allow people to go do and experience different things.”
Koonin argues the Hawks potentially saved several hundred million by choosing to renovate rather than build a new arena from the ground up. But it’s difficult to separate that decision from the city council’s controversial approval last November of a $5 billion project to develop “the Gulch,” an area around the arena that is currently little more than parking lots and train tracks. Nearly $2 billion of that will be publicly funded in partnership with CIM Group, which was co-founded by the brother of Hawks owner Tony Ressler.
“It is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen in sports funding,” Bradbury said. “There’s zero justification for giving the Hawks that public funding because the Hawks agreed to be there for a long time. They couldn’t threaten to move. It was flat handing money to billionaires.”
But why does this keep happening? As Bradbury says, the general public typically doesn’t put up a huge fight because they don’t believe it will impact their pocketbooks to a great degree — particularly in Atlanta where tourism taxes funded State Farm Arena and Mercedes-Benz Stadium
There’s also a glittery allure to both the new stadiums and the idea that Atlanta can keep attracting big events like the Super Bowl, even if economists are skeptical of those big numbers put out by economic impact studies.
“Championship events are one-off things,” said West Virginia economic professor Brad Humphreys, an expert on the impact of sports facilities. “There’s no doubt hosting the Super Bowl is going to bring some new money to town, and hotels will raise their rates and there will be other things that happen that don’t at other times. But a lot of the estimates I see put out by convention and visitors bureaus are overstated vastly because Atlanta is a tourist destination anyway.
“I’m not saying bars and restaurants aren’t going to do really well Super Bowl weekend. But for an economy the size of Atlanta, one weekend football game is a drop in the bucket.”