Growth defines Atlanta’s sports profile over three decades

Growth defines Atlanta’s sports profile over three decades


I’ve lived in Atlanta since 1994 and have seen the city transform itself in so many ways, but the most profound change has been in the business of sports. Atlanta has been successful in leveraging sports, not only as great entertainment for fans, but as an economic engine and marketing vehicle for the city.

But as Rich McKay, the CEO of the Falcons, reminded me, the foundation for Atlanta as a major sports town started in 1966, the year the Falcons joined the NFL and the first year the Braves played in Atlanta. The appearance of these franchises, along with the major renovation of the Atlanta airport, set the wheels in motion for Atlanta to become a major league city.

However, it was the ’96 Atlanta Olympics that served as the true tipping point. The success of the ’96 Games showed the world that Atlanta was truly an “international” city and it provided the confidence and capabilities that Atlanta could successfully stage any event of any size.

The 1996 Summer Games was a turning point for Atlanta’s sports market.
The engines behind this growth are the Atlanta Sports Council, the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau and the professional franchises. Recruiting major sporting events is a strategy for the ACVB, the mission of the ASC and a priority for the professional teams. One of the unique elements of Atlanta is how well these organizations work together and collaborate with the city, state and business community, a true model for public-private partnerships. In January 2017, the ASC launched its Championship Hosting Division to streamline the planning process of hosting major sporting events. The results of this work include Atlanta hosting the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship, Super Bowl LIII in 2019 and the 2020 NCAA Men’s Final Four.

In addition to these tentpole events, Atlanta hosts major sporting events on an annual basis, including the SEC Championship, the Celebration Bowl, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic, the AJC Peachtree Road Race, Atlanta Motor Speedway’s NASCAR race, the Tour Championship and more. These events have provided hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impact to the state.

Another critical factor in the growth of the sports business is the strong leadership from the major professional sports teams. Over the past 15 years we have seen new ownership for each of these franchises. Arthur Blank acquired the Falcons in 2002 and launched Atlanta United this year. Liberty Media bought the Braves in 2007. Tony Ressler purchased the Hawks in 2015. These owners have brought new energy, passion and innovation to the city. They also have focused on three critical areas. They put in place outstanding leadership (the Falcons’ McKay; Atlanta United CEO Darren Eales; Hawks CEO Steve Koonin; and Braves CEO Terry McGuirk and President Derek Schiller); they have a “fans-first” mentality; and they are investing in building their brand, their product and, importantly, their facilities.

Atlanta now has two new world-class sports venues with the Braves’ opening of SunTrust Park and the Battery Atlanta, and the Falcons’ opening of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. In addition, the Hawks have plans to renovate Philips Arena and are building a first-of-its-kind training and sports medicine center in partnership with Emory Healthcare.

One more important ingredient is Turner Sports, which under the leadership of Lenny Daniels and Matt Hong has a significant impact on the sports business in Atlanta. Starting with its 500-plus Atlanta-based employees and 300,000 square feet of production facilities that are home to TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” TBS’s MLB postseason shows, NCAA tournament studio shows, ELeague and NBA TV, Turner Sports provides significant economic impact and a national platform for Atlanta.

Finally, Atlanta’s infrastructure, location and assets provide unique advantages. These include:

» The state Capitol, an amazing World Congress Center with more than 2 million square feet of exhibit space, a strong Metro Chamber and many corporate headquarters, including Delta, Coca-Cola, UPS, Chick-fil-A and Home Depot.

» The world’s busiest airport where more than 80 percent of the U.S. population can get here in two hours.

» A rich tradition in collegiate athletics, with two NCAA Division I programs in the city (Georgia Tech and Georgia State).

» Three major interstates intersecting in the city.

» A downtown that features 10,000 hotel rooms within walking distance from the convention center and sports venues, restaurants and music venues, first-class attractions including the College Football Hall of Fame, the World of Coca-Cola, the Georgia Aquarium, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and a soon-to-be renovated Centennial Olympic Park.

» Great weather and, of course, Southern hospitality.

Atlanta has created a winning sports game plan. While these last 20 years have seen incredible growth, I’m confident that the next 20 years will bring even more excitement, innovation and success to Atlanta’s ever-expanding sports scene.

Scott McCune is the founder of McCune Sports & Entertainment Ventures. He is former vice president of global partnerships and experiential marketing for The Coca-Cola Co., where he worked for 20 years.