The Feb. 3 Super Bowl and the Mercedes-Benz Stadium built in part to host it are intended leave better legacies than earlier games and venues, Atlanta Falcons president and CEO Rich McKay told the Buckhead Business Association at its annual luncheon.
“Stadiums are not the difference-maker,” but larger conversations created by their development can be for such communities as Vine City and English Avenue, McKay said in his keynote speech at the Jan. 15 event at the Westin Buckhead Atlanta hotel.
In light remarks, McKay also joked about some of the foibles of the stadium and Super Bowl hosting, and discussed the standout season of the Atlanta United soccer club, as well as the not-so-successful Falcons.
“It’s a really cool vibe,” he said of the United, who won this year’s MLS Cup championship after playing to sellout crowds in the stadium.
“Let’s talk about your Falcons, 7 and 9—umm, disappointing,” he said of the National Football League team he supervises. He said the team’s crushing overtime loss to New England in the 2017 Super Bowl was tough, and that while every team says it will bounce back the next season, “You can’t lose a game the way we lost it and come back.” But he praised Coach Dan Quinn and quarterback Matt Ryan.
While the Falcons won’t be playing in the hometown-hosted Super Bowl this year, McKay is helping to lead the event as a board member of its host committee. He joked about some of the lighter challenges of hosting, such as conflicts in sponsorship branding between the NFL and Atlanta.
“They’re a Pepsi league and we’re a Coke city,” he said. “They’re a Lowe’s league, and I think you would know by [local co-founder] Bernie [Marcus], we are a Home Depot city.”
The host committee is eager to bring the Super Bowl tourists to town. Buckhead is expected to get a big chunk of that business — one of the Super Bowl teams will stay at a local hotel — as well as its traffic.
McKay also noted more serious challenges, like the massive security presence that will cordon off Downtown, including his own offices, and the local costs. “These are not inexpensive events,” he said of the Super Bowl and another event the stadium hopes to co-host, the 2026 World Cup.
McKay acknowledged that Super Bowls often make big promise but leave dubious legacies for host cities.
“Every year, they do the same thing,” he said, describing the construction some type of community center for which there is no further support. “You come back in five years, you wouldn’t like what you saw.”
For this Super Bowl, he said, the committee wanted “a bunch of projects, and they’re real.” They include a major renovation of the city’s John F. Kennedy Park, and the commissioning of public-art murals, some of which, he said with a sense of relish, “will be a little controversial.” Among the artists is Brookhaven’s Yehimi Cambron, whose work addresses civil rights and undocumented immigrants.
The Falcons took a similar approach to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which opened in 2017. It replaced the Georgia Dome, which hosted the 1994 and 2000 Super Bowls, but did little to help the struggling neighborhoods it loomed over. One solution tied to the new stadium is Westside Works, an employment and job training organization formed by Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s family foundation and various public and private partners.
McKay acknowledged that Westside Works had some organizing struggles and that it has an ongoing challenge in qualifying applicants. But, he said, since 2014 it had graduated 650 people who collectively have earned $19 million in wages. Many of them now work full-time at the stadium, including the venue’s first hire, he said.
As a business operation, the new stadiums has its hits and misses, McKay noted lightly. Referring to lengthy problems in getting a complex retractable roof to open, he gave the joking architectural advice, “When you think moving pieces, think two, not eight.”
A success, he said, has been improving the quality of the stadium food while slashing its price. The stadium is now number one among NFL teams in food sales revenue despite cutting prices by 60 percent, he said, in a model followed by a growing number of other venues.
“We’re trying to get away from the idea that just because you have a captive audience, you can quadruple the price,” he said.
McKay chairs the NFL’s Competition Committee, which sets the league’s rules. One big challenge the committee deals with is helmet safety and reduction of concussions. McKay said he believes the league is on track for the adoption of safer helmets. In youth sports, he said, the NFL is suggesting alternatives to tackle football. At the local level, that includes a recently launched girls flag football program in Gwinnett County.