By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Feb. 8, 2019
Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank says he “couldn’t be prouder” of Atlanta’s performance during Super Bowl LIII.
“We’ve given birth to a wonderful, beautiful baby,” Blank said in an exclusive interview on the day after the Feb. 3 game. “It was a long process – going through labor. But we got it, and we did a great job. So it was wonderful.”
The lasting impact of the Super Bowl could take years to materialize, but there are several indicators the 2019 Big Game could lead to tangible results for future economic development as well as sporting and entertainment events.
During the game, Blank hosted Don Garber, commissioner of Major League Soccer, as well as an executive committee member from FIFA, the organizer of the World Cup, which has awarded the 2026 soccer matches to North America. Atlanta hopes to be selected as the host city for the semifinal game as well as the international broadcast center. Those decisions will be made in 2020.
Atlanta’s Super Bowl was a great opportunity for the city to sell itself – not just for the World Cup but numerous other events and prospects.
“Hopefully it will put us in a position where we can compete again for another Super Bowl,” said Blank, co-founder of The Home Depot Inc. (NYSE: HD). “Obviously having the Super Bowl sent the right kind of message to all these organizations that have to make decisions about where they’re going to host these big national events – be it another National College Championship or next year will be the Final Four, we want to get back in that cycle again.”
Blank added that Garber “was in awe” of the city, the stadium and the experience.
“So all of that had a snowballing effect that’s very positive for Atlanta, and it’s very well earned,” Blank said in the Feb. 4 interview. “I think that this city has a history of doing really big events incredibly well. Yesterday was just another milestone in that history.”
Actually, Atlanta has had a checkered past when it has hosted high-profile sporting and entertainment events. In 2000, the last time the city hosted the Super Bowl, Atlanta was hit with a freakish ice storm that shut down the city.
When Atlanta hosted the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, there was a deadly bombing during a concert in Centennial Olympic Park. And Atlanta failed to get the customary congratulatory “best Olympics ever” praise from the International Olympics Committee. Instead then-IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch called Atlanta’s Games “most exceptional.”
Blank, however, defended Atlanta, saying the city has done “a wonderful job historically hosting all these major events.”
But the 2019 Super Bowl stood out, and Blank gives credit to all the partners, institutions, associates and volunteers.
“They all got it right,” Blank said. “I was constantly asked last week: ‘How is Atlanta doing?’ And my answer was that on a scale of 1 to 10, probably 15.”
All the feedback Blank had received from the NFL, out-of-town guests and broadcast partner CBS was that Atlanta’s Super Bowl “was absolutely flawless.”
“So I’m just a proud father today,” Blank said. “I couldn’t be prouder of Atlanta.”
A highlight for Blank was being able to share Atlanta’s “uniqueness” and its civil rights history – from Martin Luther King Jr. to the late Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.
During the opening ceremony of the Super Bowl, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Bernice King, CEO of the King Center, were on the field of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“We wanted the Super Bowl that wasn’t just a huge party for the week,” Blank said. “We wanted a Super Bowl with a purpose. And I think we got that. I heard that comment from a number of owners and folks from the league and CBS as well. They all felt we did a great job, not just having great activities, festivities and parties, but one that was connected to a higher purpose.”
He was especially pleased the NFL and CBS showcased the city’s efforts to revitalize the Westside communities of Vine City and English Avenue – directly across from the stadium.
Blank also took NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and other VIPs on a civil rights tour on Jan. 31, when they toured the King Center and King’s birth home.
“We were all moved by it,” said Blank, who also held the NFL Owners dinner and reception that same night at the Center for Civil and Human Rights. “I’m trying to be objective about this, but I don’t know how we could have done a better job.”
Compared to 2000, Blank said, the weather was “excellent” and was symbolic of today’s Atlanta. “The sun was out. The sun was shining. Atlanta was out. Atlanta was shining,” Blank said.
One of Blank’s crowning Super Bowl moments was having the stadium’s futuristic retractable roof open and close during the pre-game festivities. After the stadium opened in August 2017, it took months before the complicated multi-petal roof structure was able to function as designed.
Blank admitted it was important to show off the roof technology during the Super Bowl, and fortunately, “the commissioner was in our corner.” They rehearsed the opening and closing of the roof five times on the Friday before the game to make sure there were no glitches.
“The technology and the artwork that created it was incredible,” Blank said, explaining that the roof couldn’t be kept open during the entire game because of cooler temperatures.
“We wanted to be able to open it and close it,” Blank said. “And to be able to do it during the pre-game activities for the flyover and the national anthem was great.” Later he added, “The commissioner loves the roof. The NFL loves the roof.”
When asked what stood out for him during the Super Bowl, Blank said it was people raving about Atlanta’s walkability and hospitality everywhere he went. “Everybody had a smile on their face.”
While the stadium came off beautifully, Blank acknowledged that the actual game was “not that exciting” for spectators.
“I wish the game was a little more entertaining for most of the fans,” said Blank, who was not surprised the New England Patriots won. “It was a heartfelt game for sure. But fans, they like scoring, and there was not a lot of scoring in that game. It was the lowest scoring game in the history of the Super Bowl.”
Most importantly, Blank said, the million people who came to Atlanta to participate in Super Bowl festivities left with a favorable impression of the city, and he is confident they will become ambassadors for Atlanta.
“I think many of them will come back because we this incredible circle of venues in Atlanta – the [Georgia] Aquarium, the Center for Civil and Human Rights, the World of Coke, the College Football Hall of Fame, the Children’s Museum,” Blank said.
For Blank, one of the Super Bowl’s lasting legacies will be Atlanta proving once and for all that it’s ready for prime time – both to residents and visitors.
“They saw a city that has the capacity to put on these huge events – and do them with a purpose,” Blank said.
So given the city’s success, when might Atlanta get another Super Bowl?
“I really have no idea,” Blank said. “There are many competing cities. They are all great cities, and they are all great venues. I think we did the best job we could putting our hat back in the ring. I’m sure we’ll have that conversation – probably sooner rather than later – while all that great experience is still fresh in their minds. When that will be, I’m not sure. Hopefully it’s not another 19 years.”