By Guest Columnist THAD SHEELY, chief operating officer of the Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena
Just over a week ago, Elton John played his farewell tour in the new State Farm Arena, creating a neat symmetry to a weekend nearly 20 years earlier when he performed for the grand opening of Philips Arena in 1999. As both Elton and Atlanta have changed over that time, so too has the arena – that was a different time and a different place.
The defining element of the arena in 1999 was the wall of suites and club seats that occupied the west side of the building. This barrier created a divide between two halves of the building and in some ways amongst our fans. In the very first meeting deciding the future design of the arena, City and Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority representatives expressed a clear mandate: Tear down this wall!
We made that a rallying cry for the renovation. We knocked down that wall of suites and created a new sideline upper deck that allows the upper concourse to circle all the way around the arena. We broke down the walls separating the concourse from the bowl and built great new bars that allow fans to stand on the concourse and still feel connected to the action on the court. We even removed many of the walls blocking exterior windows allowing natural light and views of the city into the arena on all sides.
By knocking down these walls, we not only made the building more inclusive, but we also created over 100,000 square feet of new fan-facing space in the arena – all without expanding the existing footprint of the building. The obvious question then is what to put in all this new space. For inspiration, we turned to the Atlanta BeltLine.
As soon as we hired the architects, we booked a three-hour tour with the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership and discovered for the first time that our concourse could be a version of the BeltLine – a circular pathway around the heart of a place that connects open spaces, restaurants and neighborhoods in authentic, uplifting and, sometimes, surprising ways. Rather than sequence a repetitive pattern of different concession stands around the building, we wanted to create neighborhood destinations that would feel right at home on the Beltline itself. We wanted to entice people to explore every district of the building, each with a unique feel and flavor, all inspired by Atlanta.
These destinations start at the front door with Killer Mike’s SWAG Shop, an exact replica of his Edgewood storefront down to the brown brick façade and red and white striped barber pole. You can now get a haircut by one of SWAG’s featured barbers and watch the game at the same time.
Food defines other neighborhoods, like the Zac Brown Social Club – a 10,000-square foot restaurant designed and operated by Chef Rusty Hamlin, complete with live-fire cooking and chandeliers over signature bars. Fans can also try out Gio’s Little Italia on the west side of the arena, which converted a private space into a public concourse with award-winning pizza and the best new burger in town. We made sure the upper concourse had destinations as well, including the Chick-Fil-A fan zone, B’s Cracklin’ BBQ, J.R. Crickets lemon pepper wings and a great craft brewery. Like our brand mantra, every partner is #TruetoAtlanta – including our Fan-Friendly food pricing with a dozen staple food and drink options priced at $5 or less.
Other destinations offer a unique experience to watch a game or concert. The Hawk Bar is the NBA’s first “feet-on-the-floor” bar on the actual hardwood court, allowing fans to stand 10 feet behind the basket and feel the game. We added new scoreboards to each corner and carved out multi-level terraces that extend out into the bowl allowing fans a new perspective on the event.
Finally, we have taken premium seating to a new level – offering the right-sized suite for every business from the southern-inspired veranda suite to the cabanas of Atlanta Social; we have challenged the status quo of premium seating to create exclusive, energetic experiences for all our fans. We even partnered with TopGolf to create two TopGolf Swing Suites featuring sophisticated golf simulators in our party suites.
Each of these elements are experiences inspired by our City. We believe an arena can rise above just being another building if it connects to and represents the brand of the team and the identity of the city. The true test of a great arena is if you placed it in any other city, would it make any sense? The right answer is “No;” a homecourt needs to feel at home ONLY in its hometown. We invite you to come down to State Farm Arena and explore Atlanta’s newest neighborhood.
Note to readers: As the Hawks’ COO, Sheely oversees the business operations and real estate development for the club and arena. He managed the re-imagination of State Farm Arena and led the design and construction of the team’s 90,000 practice facility that’s part of Emory Sports Medicine Complex, located in Brookhaven.