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Atlanta Hosts The Super Bowl This Week, But A Different Football Is Still The Talk Of The Town

ATLANTA — Super Bowl LIII has landed in Atlanta this week, bringing hundreds of thousands of visitors who are expected to spend millions in the area to the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Next week, it will all be gone.

The Atlanta Falcons statue outside of Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Unlike after the last Super Bowl to be hosted in Atlanta 19 years ago, the football stadium won’t be dark until August. Come March, tens of thousands of fans will fill the seats once more, cheering on a different type of football team, one that some locals believe is far more crucial to the long-term success of the area around the 71,000-seat stadium.

“I think that soccer games are, hands down, more significant than NFL games or NBA basketball games,” Legacy Ventures President David Marvin said.

Marvin, who operates several businesses around the stadium, is referring to Atlanta’s championship-winning Major League Soccer team, Atlanta United. In its first season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the team shattered MLS attendance records and filled the new arena with roaring fans.

The Super Bowl makes a large economic dent; the Metro Atlanta Chamber predicts this year's game will make upward of a $400M economic impact on the region. Hotel rooms are booked all over the city, and restaurants are expecting throngs of tourists here for the game. Even rooms at the Motel 6 near the stadium were reportedly fetching more than $1K/night.

The bar scene at No Mas! Cantina in Castleberry Hill

But Super Bowls come infrequently. Atlanta has hosted two other Super Bowls: Super Bowl XXVIII in 1994 and Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000.

On any given Sunday, when the Falcons play a home game, or when the Atlanta Hawks have a game at nearby State Farm Arena, those fans don’t patronize nearby businesses as Atlanta United fans do, some local business owners say.

“Atlanta United has been huge for us. I would say actually more than the football games," said Melody Voirin, the director of operations for No Mas! Cantina a few blocks from Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “With Atlanta United, the fans come out. They come here, they celebrate and they have a good time.”

Arthur Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons

Soccer Dreams

The year 2013 was a landmark in Atlanta sports history.

The Atlanta Braves shocked the city when the organization announced it would leave Turner Field in Downtown Atlanta for a new stadium complex in suburban Cobb County.

Soon after, Falcons’ billionaire owner Arthur Blank struck a deal with the city of Atlanta to help fund and develop a new $1.5B stadium to replace the 27-year-old Georgia Dome.

But instead of taking cues from the Braves and leaving the city, Blank kept the franchise in Downtown, yards away from the Georgia Dome. With a new facility also came a new team: Atlanta United.

Atlanta sports fans are known for being fair-weather when it comes to their home teams, so the immediate support behind Atlanta United, also called the Five Stripes, has been stunning.

Atlanta United attendance has broken the trend of teams not being able to fill up larger American football stadiums. The team averaged 53,000 attendees per game, eight of which exceeded 70,000 attendees, according to Forbes. By contrast, the team with the next highest average attendees per game, the Seattle Sounders, saw just over 40,000 people per game. The Portland Timbers, who played Atlanta United for the MLS cup, averaged 21,100 per game in their soccer-only stadium.

“We’re all shocked at how successful it was,” Georgia State University Associate Professor of Economics Bruce Alan Seaman said. “Arthur Blank really did believe fundamentally that, somehow or other, this was going to be wildly successful.”

Seaman worked with Blank and his organization on an economic projection report for Mercedes-Benz Stadium. That report predicted the stadium would have a combined direct and indirect ongoing economic impact of between $80M and $100M, perhaps reaching as much as $120M in really good years, beyond the impact felt from the Georgia Dome.

For its entire first season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta United drew more than 1.1 million combined fans at its 21 home games. The Falcons drew 728,500 fans divided among 10 total home games, according to data from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, the organization that owns the Falcons and Atlanta United.

Atlanta resident and Atlanta United fan Cassie Gooding at one of the team's 2018 home games

A Local Catalyst

The spike in business surrounding Atlanta United games has come at a fortuitous time for Downtown Atlanta and its overall resurgence. Georgia State University filled the vacuum left by the Braves, taking over Turner Field and turning it into a stadium for its football team, developing an adjacent mixed-use project.

Since then, other developers have been jumping into Downtown, generating an economic life in the city’s core that has not been seen in generations. Outside of GSU and the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, perhaps the biggest project in the pipeline that will transform the area around the stadium is the Gulch. 

Los Angeles-based CIM Group purchased a 40-acre sea of asphalt next to the stadium that is currently used as parking, and is a popular location for Atlanta United game-day tailgating. It plans a $5B mixed-use project that is expected to include 9M SF of office, 1M SF of retail and hundreds of hotel rooms and apartments. 

CIM Group is not alone with big plans to build near the stadium. German investment firm Newport purchased more than 40 Downtown buildings along Peachtree, Mitchell and Broad streets and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive for a big redevelopment play.

When it comes to actual new economic impact, though, the Hawks and the Falcons were never likely to contribute any more to Downtown’s economy than they already were, Seaman said, despite the money put into arena renovations and a new stadium, respectively. The Falcons are not likely to produce more overall income to the economy by moving down the street.

“There's no doubt that Atlanta United has brought a huge part of that economic story to the region,” Seaman said. “It's nice to now have a major representative in a league that is definitely coming into its own in the single most popular spectator sport on the planet.”

Seaman said the halo of Atlanta United is largely a local one. Most of the fans are from other areas of Atlanta. That means there is a trade-off as the economic gain in Downtown Atlanta is at the expense of a fan going to eat lunch at an Applebee's in Johns Creek.

In the case of one self-confessed superfan, Peachtree Corners resident Cassie Gooding, it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. She played soccer her entire life and was one of the first season ticket holders when Atlanta United formed.

One of the appealing aspects of Atlanta United to Gooding was the cost. Soccer games are much cheaper than tickets for the Falcons or the Braves.

“It's amazing to me as a single, 32-year-old contract worker, I can afford season tickets to my favorite team,” she said. “I can't even sneeze at the Falcons tickets, they're so expensive.”

The NFL or the college games played at Mercedes-Benz tend to bring people from out of state, sometimes fans of opposing teams or people visiting Atlanta for a convention, business trip or leisure travel, Seaman said. While it's good for hotels, that doesn't lead to the same vibrancy.

When No Mas! Cantina first opened, foot traffic in that part of Castleberry Hill, even with the Georgia Dome nearby, was practically nonexistent, Voirin said.

"Atlanta United is the top [reason] for increasing the amount of business around us,” she said.

After Atlanta won its bid for the Super Bowl in the fourth round in 2016, Emory Goizueta Business School associate professor Thomas Smith said the widely cited economic impact numbers for Super Bowls can be overstated. But a Super Bowl's intangible impact on a region may be more important.

"Getting the Super Bowl with a new stadium is a good selling point when the mayor or governor or the chamber of commerce tries to convince people that Atlanta isn't some hick Southern town," Smith told Patch in 2016. "The region still has that image. Getting the Super Bowl gives people who are trying to portray Atlanta as a great place to live and work some legitimacy in their efforts."

Two years after its home stadium won the chance to host the big game, Atlanta United won a championship, something the Falcons have failed to achieve in their 53-year existence. While the Super Bowl will also bring championship football and disposable income to Downtown Atlanta, the soccer team can ensure it keeps coming back.