SBJ/April 7-13, 2014/Opinion

Why Atlanta is a sports market worth watching

One of the best stories in sports business is what’s taking place in Atlanta. Pretty quietly over the last year, there has been a run of developments that have the chance to make a significant impact on that community and the overall sports industry.
  
I spent a Friday in Atlanta last month and got a better sense of what’s going on with new facilities in the city that is a four-hour drive from where I live, in Charlotte. There’s the Falcons’ $1.2 billion stadium in the city’s downtown core; the massively ambitious plan by the Braves to build a $672 million mixed-use complex and ballpark on 83 acres in Cobb County, 12 miles north of Turner Field; and the development of the $66.9 million College Football Hall of Fame. For the Falcons and the Braves, their new world-class venues are both scheduled to open in 2017, meaning they will be in the marketplace at the same time selling tickets, sponsorships and naming rights.
  
My colleague Don Muret and I spent more than two hours with the two key executives behind the Braves’ plans. Over sandwiches in a conference room at Turner Field, executive vice presidents Mike Plant and Derek Schiller shared their vision for the club’s move. You’ll see parts of that conversation in the pages of SportsBusiness Journal over the next month — but I find what they’re doing, and their project, one of the more intriguing stories in sports business, because few teams have taken control of such an ambitious project. We’re talking about building a state-of-the-art ballpark while simultaneously developing a destination of boutique retail space, residential property, offices and a hotel, as well as developing entertainment programming that will run through the year — and do it all in less than three years.
  
The Braves are moving forward on this while facing the PR challenge of relocating out of the city’s urban core and countering the perception of traffic and transportation challenges at the new site. That’s why one talking point you’ll hear time and again from Braves executives is: “We’re just 12 miles up the road. It’s an Atlanta address.” In addition, they frequently stressed to me that there will be 14 points of ingress/egress at the new site, whereas the current Turner Field has two. Team executives also walked us though reams of data and hot maps showing how they are actually moving closer to their core fan base and ticket buyers, a counterpoint to criticism that fans won’t travel to the new location. There is still a lot to learn about this project, including the design of the ballpark from Populous, but it was interesting to hear Plant and Schiller talk about their philosophy on segmentation in their new park and their belief in offering multiple premium and social options at various price points for ticket buyers. They also hinted at bringing a new approach to the facility’s roof, to keep fans shaded during the hot summer months.
  
On the College Football Hall of Fame front, I will watch how John Stephenson, president and CEO of Atlanta Hall Management, will work with his board to reinvent the hall of fame experience. Let’s be honest: Their challenge is relevancy, and they are talking of making it one of the most technologically advanced venues in the

Designs for the Falcons’ new home
Photo by: 360 ARCHITECTURE

space, with RFID experiences, along with featuring a diverse mix of events. They also are talking about it being a venue that is debt-free and cash-flow positive. The building has a hard deadline to open in August, and we’ll be taking a closer look at the facility at that time.

As for the Falcons’ plan for a downtown facility that features a dynamic blueprint by 360 Architecture: You’ve seen the eight-sided design, retractable roof and 62,000-square-foot video screen within the roof opening. Their vision is hosting another tenant, publicly expressing great interest in an MLS team, while setting their sights on landing major events like future Super Bowls, Final Fours and college football championships.

Keep an eye on this city and look for more on these developments in SBJ/SBD in the weeks, months — and years — ahead.

> LOVE THE ONE YOU’RE WITH: There was a good panel at the Business of Sports Summit in Atlanta that featured a number of front-office executives. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, an avid cyclist and snowboarder, talked of the importance of the relationship between general manager and coach — in his case, Atlanta’s Mike Smith. “The relationship between the head coach and the GM is paramount in an organization,” he said. “I can’t underestimate how much time should be spent on that. My wife is worried about how much time I spend with Smitty.”
  
Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson talked about his role in the personnel process and sitting in the room with his staff on draft night. “I’m not ever hinting who their draft pick should be,” he said. “I am in there to make sure we are staying true to our mission, which is to build something sustainable over time. But I’m only an observer. I can and will challenge them to articulate how does this help us build sustainable success.”

As usual, the discussion of keeping fans engaged during the live game was stressed. Levenson said at one time he wanted to put a microphone on his coaches to give fans more insight into their thinking, but that was vetoed by staff. He also had one of the more interesting outlooks on the topic of fans being engaged with the play on the court versus looking at their phones.
  
“Fans are going to be looking at their phones during the game regardless,” he said. “The key for us is to connect that usage to new and intimate ways with what’s going on on the court. We need to [incent] fans to use their phones while at the games, so let’s develop mobile apps that will drive affinity.”
  
Levenson offered an example of how teams could develop apps that would be relevant to fans at the venue, compel fans to use them, and tie such action into the actual game. His scenario was the Hawks being down by one point late in the game, and Kyle Korver gets fouled, heading to the line to shoot two free throws. “Then we’d have an app that would send you a message, maybe from Coca-Cola, when Korver is about to go to the line, and you get all this data about Korver’s stats in similar situations,” he said. “You’re then asked about Korver’s likelihood to make the shots, and you’re rewarded if you answer correctly. That will give you points to use in the arena: merchandise, food or just more points you can accumulate. Maybe you get enough points to travel with the team and sit with the coaches or other special access points. We need to use technology to connect fans to the court and get fans betting on what will happen on the court, legally. Because we know, ultimately, it’s going to move to in-game legal betting.” Levenson said that looking down the line there will be the real-time in-game betting in the U.S. that is currently happening in the U.K. “It’s where we’re going, eventually,” he said.

Lee Corso on leadership
Photo by: BYRON SMALL

CORSO ON LEADERSHIP: I sat in on an interview with ESPN’s Lee Corso at the Business of Sports Summit — an event co-hosted by the Atlanta Business Chronicle and the Atlanta Sports Council, which is led by Corso’s son, Dan. Lee Corso gives a nice presentation because he is self-effacing and honest. He started by telling the audience of nearly 500 that because of his stroke nearly four years ago, his mind might not always match up with what comes out of his mouth, but he still offered fun anecdotes and smart comments on leadership. Some of the ones I jotted down:

An attribute of a good leader: “How you treat the people you don’t need.”
  
On being on TV: “You can say anything you want to say — as long as you smile.”
  
On the sports business: “Greed will kill you.”

On professional growth: “Never prostitute your integrity to get a job, or keep one.”

It was good to see father and son at this event together and to hear fun stories and worthwhile thoughts from one of the most popular personalities in college football.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.


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