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Atlanta's Sports Renaissance

Atlanta’s sports history is far from glamorous. But that didn’t stop the city’s sport visionaries from making game-changing moves.

The last time Atlanta had this much of a spotlight on sports was arguably during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Imagine the comparison: the 1996 Games were a landmark centennial anniversary for the modern Olympics and the first time the Southern U.S. played host. Furthermore, Atlanta was yet a small city with little national clout outside of the game-changing music filling local airwaves and piquing interest around the world.

Today, after more than two decades, Atlanta’s pride in hosting the Olympics is ever-present—you can visit living landmarks like Centennial Olympic Park, view the original cauldron (and, oddly, a replica cauldron), and explore the impressive Centennial Olympic Games Collection at the Atlanta History Center.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Altanta, GA
This rendering shows the field and 360-degree LED screen of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new home of the NFL Atlanta Falcons and MLS Atlanta United FC. (Courtesy Mercedes-Benz Stadium via Facebook)

And yet, the city’s own sports teams have historically provided little reason to boast. It’s a reality Atlantans have had to face time and again, often by national press that awards Atlanta none-too-prestigious titles. For instance, a 2012 ESPN article reads “Atlanta is the worst sports town in America.” Forbes backed up the claim by naming Atlanta the No. 1 “Most Miserable Sports City” in the U.S. And when the Atlanta Falcons made it to Super Bowl 51 only to lose after a gut-wrenching two-touchdown lead? Well, Jason Foster of SportingNews said it was par for the course: “[Falcons fans] knew it wasn’t going to end well. Because it rarely ends well for Atlanta teams in elimination situations.”

These comments and “accolades” would maim any town’s ego—and sure, they always sting—but Atlanta is no ordinary city, and it continues doing what it does best: carrying on.

A little history lesson is in order when talking about Atlanta’s unshakable constitution. The city’s uphill battle began only 27 years after it was founded, born as the terminating point of four railroad lines. During the ill-fated summer of 1864—just a year before the end of the Civil War—General William Tecumseh Sherman was bent on making an example of Atlanta as he embarked on his fiery Atlanta Campaign. Sherman and his Union soldiers blazed through the young city, burning to the ground every structure in their path. For the first time and certainly not the last, Atlanta was left to dust off the ashes of destruction.

Atlanta United FC, Atlanta, GA
Leandro Gonzalez Pirez is one of the star players of Atlanta's new and beloved MLS team, Atlanta United FC. (Courtesy Atlanta United FC via Facebook)

The city’s rapid Civil War reconstruction set the tone of bulletproof strength for years to come. In fact, within four years of Sherman’s inflamed march, Atlanta had become the region’s industrial hub and the state’s capital. Atlantans not only rebuilt their town, but also took the opportunity to reinvent their city as more progressive than its Southern neighbors—the “New South,” they deemed it.

And so it was. Atlanta was soon a nucleus for intellectuals, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs and inventors (such as pharmacist John Pemberton, who formulated a tonic now known as Coca-Cola). By the 1950s, less than 100 years after the abolition of slavery, Auburn Avenue was recognized as the wealthiest African-American street in the nation.

Blind determination and unflinching perseverance are two of the city’s strongest traits to this day. And so, we find ourselves in a new age of Atlanta sports, an unquestionable renaissance brought on by a well-timed barrage of new developments and renewed hope.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, GA
This rendering shows the exterior of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new home of the NFL Atlanta Falcons and MLS Atlanta United FC. (Courtesy Mercedes-Benz Stadium via Facebook)

In early 2013, omens of progress began trickling in as Arthur Blank, who owns Atlanta’s NFL Falcons team, struck a deal with the City of Atlanta to build a state-of-the-art stadium next to the Georgia Dome, then-home of the Falcons. Atlantans initially questioned the need for a shiny new structure, until formal renderings of the more than $1.3-billion project surfaced and immediately knocked jaws on the floor.

The new stadium, now on track to host its first game in July, is a breathtaking example of the kind of innovation that results when technology, architecture and design work in tandem. The Mercedes-Benz Stadium, as it’s formally known, offers a roll-call of first-of-its-kind features—including a space-age retractable roof and “The largest LED video display in all of sports”—that have the nation’s sports fans clamoring for Game Day. As it turns out, word of the new Falcons stadium was just the first domino to fall.

A mere eight months after news of Blank’s plans surfaced, the Atlanta Braves announced their own multimillion-dollar plans to end their tenure at Turner Field.

“This region [is] on the move. It’s increasingly diverse. There are Fortune 100 companies here. There’s a burgeoning tech community. There’s sophistication and cool places within our footprint,” said Adam Zimmerman, VP of Marketing for the Atlanta Braves, who says the team’s decision to build its own home base was a logical next step for both the franchise and its ever-growing hometown.

SunTrust Park, Atlanta, GA
Exterior rendering of the MLB Atlanta Braves' new ballpark, SunTrust Park. (Courtesy SunTrust Park)

Yet again, local sports fans were hit with news of not just a new stadium, but also of the Braves’ ambitious plans to concurrently build a sprawling entertainment complex around it. SunTrust Park and The Battery Atlanta, as each development is known respectively, shift the Braves’ home 10 miles northwest of Downtown Atlanta, where Turner Field is located. The move is a strategic one, as it brings the stadium closer to a larger portion of the team’s most active fans. “We estimate that upwards of 35 percent of our fans—the people who actually come to games—come from outside of Metro Atlanta … That could be close to a million people that visit Metro Atlanta to come and see the Braves every year,” said Zimmerman.

As for the new development’s amenities, it’s hard to know where to begin. Surrounding the SunTrust Park, which in itself offers a slew of activities, dining options and fan experiences, The Battery creates an all-in-one experience that allows fans to turn every game into a day-long outing.

The Battery Atlanta, Atlanta, GA
This rendering illustrates the walkability and buzz of The Battery Atlanta, which surrounds SunTrust Park, the MLB Atlanta Braves' new home. (Courtesy The Battery Atlanta)

It seems the Braves are looking to embody the South’s modus operandi with this extraordinary vision. “The South has beautiful values—traditional values—that we think transcend gender and race. Those are things like being welcoming and friendly and Southern hospitality. We like to be outside, and we care about our neighbors and food,” Zimmerman explained of the inspiration behind the development, which includes 400,000 square feet of retail and office space.

Sprawling across nearly 90 acres, The Battery’s dining options are a veritable checklist of Atlanta’s most celebrated chefs, including Hugh Acheson’s First & Third Hot Dog and Sausage Shack, Linton Hopkins’ C. Ellet’s steakhouse, Ford Fry’s El Felix, Antico Pizza Napoletana and various others. Mark Wahlberg and his family are also bringing their burger chain, Wahlburgers, to the development.

In addition to the myriad food options, The Battery is home to the revived, 53,000-square-foot Roxy Theatre, which is run by Live Nation and will feature a rotating marquee of about 40 musical and comedy acts each year, typically scheduled for non-game days. Punch Bowl Social has also made its mark by opening its first location in Georgia at The Battery. The two-story entertainment powerhouse features eight bowling lanes, a bocce court, three karaoke rooms, a 360-degree bar, and—the Holy Grail for Atlantans—a 2,200-square-foot rooftop patio.

Atlanta United FC, Atlanta, GA
Atlanta's new MLS team, Atlanta United FC, built itself an enormous and devoted fanbase even before its first official home game. (Courtesy Atlanta United FC via Facebook)

Word of ambitious development plans from both the Falcons and Braves in 2013 catalyzed a chain of reactions that landed the city multiple landmark sporting opportunities. In 2014, Atlanta was chosen as the 21st Major League Soccer team. In March 2017, Atlanta United FC played its first MLS game in front of 55,000 adoring fans—the fourth-largest crowd of any soccer game played that weekend throughout the world. Also in 2014, Atlanta was selected to be the host city of the 2020 Final Four. In November 2015, the College Football Playoff crowned Atlanta its host city for the 2018 championship game. Then, in May 2016, the city erupted in celebration as it was named host of the Super Bowl in 2019.

With these kinds of large-scale events flocking to the city and bringing with them millions of dollars of economic growth, Atlanta’s visionary sports teams have proven they’re always ready to “rise up” and win on their own terms.