A 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.

Where Atlanta - - WHERE NOW - BY MICHELLE KHOURI

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.

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-toopres­ti­gious 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 gutwrench­ing 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.

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. The city now finds it­self in a new age of lo­cal sports, a flour­ish­ing re­nais­sance brought on by a well-timed bar­rage of re­newed hope...and de­vel­op­ment. 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

“The city now finds it­self in a new age of lo­cal sports, a flour­ish­ing re­nais­sance.”

ques­tioned the need for a shiny new struc­ture, un­til for­mal ren­der­ings of the more than $1.6-bil­lion project sur­faced and left 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 spaceage 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. Yet again, lo­cal sports fans were hit with news of not just a new ball­park, 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, where Turner Field is lo­cated. Ac­cord­ing to Zim­mer­man, the move is a strate­gic way to bring the ball­park closer to a larger por­tion of the team’s most

South­ern Val­ues “It seems the Braves hope to em­body the South’s modus operandi with this ex­tra­or­di­nary vi­sion.” “For­mal ren­der­ings of the more than $1.6-bil­lion project sur­faced and left jaws on the floor.”

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 din­ing op­tions and fan ac­tiv­i­ties, The Bat­tery cre­ates an all-in-one ex­pe­ri­ence that al­lows fans to turn game day into a day­long out­ing. It seems the Braves hope 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 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. 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. 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.

Ken­wyne Jones, At­lanta United For­ward

55,000 fans cheered on At­lanta United FC dur­ing their first MLS game in March

The At­lanta Braves are the first team in the U.S. to take on the de­vel­op­ment of both a new sta­dium (SunTrust Park) and the sur­round­ing en­ter­tain­ment com­plex (The Bat­tery) at the same time.

At­lanta United FC Un­veil­ing

At­lanta United fans

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