On the eve of State Farm Arena easing into a reopening event — an Atlanta Hawks basketball game — the venue’s general manager discussed safety protocols and the post-COVID future at a Jan. 25 virtual meeting of the Buckhead Rotary Club.

For the past four years, sports industry veteran Brett Stefansson has been the executive vice-president and general manager of the arena, home of the Hawks and a venue for concerts and other shows. He spoke to the Rotary Club via Zoom the same day the Hawks announced they would play their first game at the arena since the start of the pandemic.

Brett Stefansson, general manager of State Farm Arena and an Atlanta Hawks executive. (Special)

The Hawks were scheduled to take on the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday, Jan. 26 with the arena at 8% capacity with strict safety protocols in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus, according to a statement from the team’s management.

“We are slowly ramping up admitting fans into the building,” Stefansson told Rotary members. “As a part of that process we really focused on how to do that safely, so we partnered with folks like Emory and Sharecare, and worked with epidemiologists. There are a lot of moving parts and it’s been a challenge trying to open the building in this new COVID-19 world.”

Stefansson, who oversaw a massive 2019 renovation of the former Philips Arena, said, “When COVID hit, it was the exact opposite of everything that we had designed for. It hit us in the face; our business came to a screeching halt from a concert perspective and from a basketball perspective. As you can imagine, it’s had a tremendous impact on our business as a whole to the tune of millions of dollars in loss.”

He gave kudos to the Hawks’ owner Tony Ressler for keeping all full-time staff engaged, adding, “and he made it clear to us that this year isn’t really about revenue. This year is about trying to play basketball and have a season, trying to provide some sort of entertainment to folks in a really tough time.”

Asked what steps were taken to improve air quality inside the arena, Stefansson replied,

“We changed our air filters according to CDC guidelines. Our fresh air overturns 11 times per hour which exceeds the NBA mandate and recommendations from the epidemiologists. We turn the air over three times before we even let anyone in the building so you’re getting fresh air constantly throughout. We’ve gone through a whole test and balance of the entire building to make sure we have a distribution of flow reaching the various spaces.

The arena has not been completely idle during the shutdown, hosting blood drives and becoming a precinct for voters in local and national elections, including the recent Senate runoffs. Stefansson also mentioned community efforts such as meal deliveries and finding jobs for who are members of minority communities or who are lower-income.

As for when concerts could return to State Farm, Stefansson predicted music fans might be able to attend as soon as October.

“Artists have been cooped up and are ready to get out. Once it gets going I think we’re going to see a flood of concerts,” he said. “Some acts that are talking about going on the road are Aerosmith, Billy Joel, Elton John and Justin Bieber… the whole gamut. I project we’ll probably have the most robust three years that we’ve ever seen in our industry, or at least the 25 years I’ve been in it.”

And Stefansson made another prediction. “My hope is that on the horizon we see a championship for the Hawks. I think we’ll see a playoff this year.”

“I don’t like to think of the basketball team or a concert as the product,” Stefansson concluded. “I like to think of the experience as our product. We can’t control wins and losses, and we can’t control whether an artist is good or bad but we can control what the experience is like as a guest when you come into the building. So we focus hard on this customer journey. Then it becomes a great night out. Folks are always looking for something fun to do.”