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Volume 21 No. 33
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Atlanta hitting its stride in spectacular fashion

Iwalked out of the Omni Hotel and onto Andrew Young Boulevard at sunset shortly after I arrived in Atlanta earlier this month. Walking up a block to International Plaza, it hit me: Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It is a jaw-dropper. I literally stopped, stood and stared at the size and scale of the venue. It’s magnificently grand and unlike any structure I have seen before. Everything you have heard and read about it — from the eye-popping halo board to the light, open feeling inside the stadium to the front porch offering a great view of the city’s downtown — is true. And it will only get better once the Georgia Dome is razed, which will free up an entirely new side of access, tailgating and green space. It’s truly remarkable.

I’ve watched the development of the Atlanta sports scene closely over the past few years, so it was gratifying to see the city’s venues up close during our Sports Facilities and Franchises conference earlier this month. Two days after seeing Mercedes-Benz Stadium, we took a quick and easy 25-minute ride up to Cobb County to take in The Battery Atlanta and SunTrust Park. A lot of people talk about mixed-use development, but the Braves organization has done it — in an incredibly swift span of 30 months.

I was blown away walking into The Battery, along a streetscape toward the ballpark, passing by Power Alley and the Yard House restaurant to a green plaza where we were welcomed by Braves Vice Chair John Schuerholz. The Battery presents a positive vibe, with clean and contemporary architecture. SunTrust Park was what you’d expect from any new ballpark, but The Battery is what struck me, from the extraordinary financial risk the Braves took to completing it on a tight schedule to the mix of tenants. The area was hopping on an October Thursday evening, with activity at the apartments overlooking the ballpark, to people mingling on the green, to crowded restaurants, to a concert at the Coca-Cola Roxy Theatre.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Derek Schiller, Braves president of business, noted that 30 percent of The Battery Atlanta is open. The gleaming Comcast building sits just beyond centerfield and in a few weeks, the company will begin moving in 1,000 employees to the space, while the adjacent Omni Hotel opens Dec. 28. Team officials expect 80 percent occupancy by opening day next year, and there is much more to come, as the Braves are sitting on 25 acres of land that is slated for a $200 million Phase 2 of the development. Even Hawks CEO Steve Koonin tipped his cap to his neighbor sports organization, saying, “Our friends at the Braves crushed it.”

But speaking of the Hawks, the team’s plan for a $200 million renovation of Philips Arena created significant buzz among event attendees, as Koonin and COO Thad Sheely detailed the progressive plans that will be unlike anything I’ve ever seen in an arena, with a Topgolf suite and Swag Shop (Shave, Wash and Groom) concept with locally known actor and rapper Killer Mike. Koonin acknowledged they were forced to think big and bold.

“We have to build a building with multiple things to do and with multiple attractions,” he said. “Our building wasn’t conducive to the social experience of today.” Once fully completed next fall, Koonin expects the demographics to change in the building. “Today, we’re around 82 percent fans and 18 percent business. I think you’ll see the business side rise,” he said. “And more women. We’re currently around 34 percent women, and I’d like to get that to 40 percent.”

The Battery Atlanta at SunTrust Park

In conversations later, both St. Louis Blues President of Business Operations Chris Zimmerman and TD Garden President Amy Latimer, who have both been through renovations, were greatly impressed with the Hawks’ plans. “The brand integration looks very smart,” Latimer said. “They highlighted local Atlanta.” She called the special areas like a Topgolf suite and barber shop “healthy distractions.” “You’re supplementing the game and keeping people engaged and keeping them there,” she said. “Coming early and staying late.”

Overall, these three organizations have invested nearly $3 billion in capital and infrastructure into the market over the last three years, and there is more to come. There is also a healthy rivalry between the organizations, and this competitive environment raised the game of each organization, and each stepped up significantly and successfully. You should make a point to visit Atlanta and see all that’s been done, because these buildings are going to be trendsetters for the future.

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Arthur Blank has really found his stride in sports. With his ownership of the Falcons, Atlanta United FC, PGA Tour Superstores and his development of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, you see his different divisions operating with efficiency and success. Blank stresses a value-based organization and principles, and that was evident during a discussion by his group’s leadership. Falcons CEO Rich McKay noted that Blank’s experience leading Home Depot has been key to how he runs his sports organization.

“Home Depot is a culture-based business, in who the people are and the way they empower people,” McKay said. One of the key values instilled through the organization is called “listen and respond.” Listen to the customer, but don’t filter out what you want to hear, and don’t decide that you know the answer. Do what the customer says. “Listen and respond is something we tell our people all the time. If we just listen to what the customer says, we will be fine,” McKay said.

Meanwhile, stadium General Manager Scott Jenkins relayed a tip that Blank often gives. “Arthur tells stories about not looking for the customer that is happy, but look for the customer that’s not happy,” Jenkins said. “That is where the problem is and that’s where you can make improvement.” McKay also brought up a constant refrain I hear from those close to Blank: “The best or nothing.” “That’s the way Arthur measures us,” McKay said. “We want to be the best we can be at everything we do.” He cited the soccer club as an example. “When we were starting the United, Arthur told us all, ‘We are not in this for fun. We want to win games and we want the fans to have a level of experience unlike anyone at MLS.’ That was his direction from day one.”

It’s worked, as the team has been one of the biggest success stories in sports this year.

Finally, there was a lot of talk about efforts to improve diversity — both gender and ethnic — in the sports business during the conference. McKay gave an example of an internal effort that starts with inclusion. “We don’t want meetings of three people or meetings of 10 people,” he said. “We want meetings of 30 people. Why? Because it lets everyone grow in those meetings. People at the top, they are not the smartest, they don’t have all the answers. The more inclusive you can be, the more you will see success. We are very purposeful in how we are trying to do that from a diversity standpoint. It’s on us to grow those people and let them succeed.”

After the session, a sports executive who I greatly admire commented on the good vibe he got from Blank’s leadership team. “I’ve heard a lot about their culture, but I thought a lot of it was BS,” the executive in his early forties told me. “But I loved what I heard. Especially about being more inclusive with meetings and idea sharing. All of us just want to grow in our jobs, but so many are afraid to bring other voices into the room, maybe feeling threatened. I like how they are allowing people to grow and learn.”

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at