Who knew? Falcons’ Rich McKay says Atlanta really is a great sports town

By Maria Saporta

Contrary to public perception, Atlanta really is a robust sports town.

That’s the message that Rich McCay, president and CEO of the Atlanta Falcons, gave to luncheon attendees at the Commerce Club Thursday.

“Atlanta as a sports market is just fantastic,” McKay said. “This is an incredible market.”

McKay said Atlantans shouldn’t “let the perception of a non-sold out playoff game of the Braves 10 years ago on a Wednesday night” color the reality of the strong sports town that it is.

“We have to change the internal perception to change the external perception,” said McKay, who then showed several charts to prove his point.

Only seven cities in the country have three major sports teams (National Football League, Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association) within their city limits. Of course Atlanta has the Falcons, the Braves and the Hawks — all playing in the core of the city.

Those seven cities are Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Oakland.

The cities of Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Dallas, Detroit, Phoenix, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco don’t have three major sports playing within their city limits.

McKay went on to say that only two of the seven cities have major college athletic programs in their city limits — Atlanta and Minneapolis.

And only two of those seven cities had all three of their teams make the playoffs in 2010 — Atlanta and Philadelphia.

McKay then added that Atlanta also plays host to a major golf tournament — the Tour Championship at East Lake.

“We have so much on our plate, and that’s a good thing,” McKay said.

But McKay still wasn’t finished proving his point. Contrary to another common misperception, Atlanta is not lagging behind other Southeastern cities when it comes to supporting its sports teams.

In the Southeast, only four cities have at least two of the major sports leagues.

When totaling all the attendees at games of the Braves, Falcons, Hawks, Georgia Tech and college games played at the Georgia Dome, Atlanta had 4.24 million fans in 2010 attend those events.

By comparison, Charlotte has the Panthers, the Bobcats and Meineke Bowl, attracting 1.28 million fans. New Orleans, home of the Saints, Hornets, Tulane, Sugar Bowl and the Bayou Classic, had a total of 1.43 million attendees. And Miami — with its Dolphins, Heat, Marlins, University of Miami and the Orange Bowl — had 2.98 million fans.

“Our numbers are incredible,” McKay said. “Atlanta as a sports market is great, and you are blessed to live here.”

During the question and answer period, McKay was asked about the latest with plans for a new football stadium for the Atlanta Falcons, owned by Arthur Blank.

“Our lease will expire on the payment of the bonds,” McKay said, adding that the Falcons organization is working with the Georgia World Congress Center Authority to determine what will happen when those bonds are paid off. “Arthur has said: ‘I’m committed to doing this downtown with the Georgia World Congress Center.’”

The big issue for the Falcons is to come up with a plan that will work for the team for the next 30 years.

But McKay added that the new facility should be able to attract all the events that currently play at the Georgia Dome. Currently, a portion of the city’s hotel-motel tax pays for the debt service on the Georgia Dome’s bond.

The State of Georgia has already extended the use of the hotel-motel tax for another 30 years if the Atlanta Falcons build on land owned by the Georgia World Congress Center. It is estimated that the contribution from the hotel-motel tax over the next 30 years will be at least $300 million. The Falcons have said they would shoulder the remaining cost of the facility.

“We are trying to limit the public risk,” McKay said. “We have negotiated this for a good long time. Hopefully it will be resolved sooner rather than later.” He then re-emphasized that the Falcons’ intent is “taking the risk off the private sector.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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