“Like the new digs?” Dan Quinn asked, 2 ½ hours before kickoff on opening night. “Pretty nice, huh?”
Yes. Pretty nice. Really nice. Nicer than nice.
If you’re wondering who won the Atlanta Stadium Derby of 2017, this untrained architect would say the Falcons. SunTrust Park is a fine place, but Mercedes-Benz Stadium is proof that $1.5 billion goes a long way. It’s massive and therefore spacious, whereas STP feels a bit cramped. (Then again, MBS has nothing like the Battery on its campus, and the Braves didn’t spend a nickel for a retractable roof that can’t yet be trusted to retract.)
Of our metro area’s two new big-league stadiums, MBS is -- as we pretty much knew all along -- the eye-popper. By itself, the halo video screen would carry that vote. And that’s not to mention the petal roof, assuming it flowers to specification. But that’s OK: SunTrust Park was built as a ballpark, not a palace. Mercedes-Benz Stadium was always drawn to palatial scale, and it achieves that exalted status. It’s pretty nice, really nice, nicer than nice.
Apologies for turning this into an episode of “Mansion Wars,” but that’s kind of where we Atlantans are. The Braves are playing in a new ballpark. The Falcons have taken occupancy of a new stadium. The Hawks are redoing Philips Arena. Can’t tell the bricks and mortar and pixelated matrix boards without a scorecard.
An hour’s unguided walking tour of MBS showed lots of neat stuff. There were food options – Farm Burger, Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q, to name two – that this diner has patronized in non-stadium form. The ushers were friendliest ever encountered. (Major thanks to Constance Glover, who went a half-mile out of her way to point the way back to the press box.) One of the blotches on the Georgia Dome was that, once inside, you couldn’t tell if it was night or day. Owing to the enormous window above the east end zone, you could see both sunshine and skyline.
Standing on the field, it was hard not to gawk. Quinn mentioned that his Falcons, in their walk-through Friday, did a lot of that. Being a coach, he was concerned. “I keep saying, ‘Guys, between the white lines.’”
Perhaps it was just happenstance, but the Falcons did play as if distracted. Matt Ryan’s first pass was deflected and intercepted. Another should-have-been-INT was dropped. The visiting Cardinals – who not incidentally play in a stadium not dissimilar to this – seemed unimpressed by their surroundings. They scored the first touchdown in MBS. They kicked the first field goal. The Falcons trailed 10-0 when Ryan was excused halfway through the second quarter. They trailed 17-nil two plays later, Matt Schaub suffering a sack/fumble on his first snap.
They would lose 24-14, not that it mattered. The football part of Saturday night was negligible. (It was, we note for emphasis, an exhibition, as in “doesn’t count.”) The attraction wasn’t the game, but its surroundings. Twenty-five years after the Dome elevated this city to a different sporting plane, its bigger and brighter brother opened its doors and stands ready – cue Sly Stone – to take us higher.
We Atlantans take a lot of grief about our teams – the principal occupant of Mercedes-Benz Stadium is coming off maybe the worst loss in the annals of U.S. sports, about which even Peyton Manning has cracked wise – but we’re not hurting for creature comforts when it comes to watching them in person. In the space of 4 ½ months, we’ve seen the Cumberland Mall area transfigured by the Braves’ arrival, and now downtown has a stunning new attraction/destination.
Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t the worst place in the world to be a sports fan. On Thursday, the Falcons will end their exhibition season in MBS while Georgia State christens Turner Field for football. On Saturday, it’s Alabama versus Florida State under the closed roof. Labor Day will bring Georgia Tech against Tennessee. Come January, we’ll have the College Football Playoff title game. Come 2019, Super Bowl LIII. Come 2020, the Final Four.
We know the drill: We’re Atlanta, which means all our streets are named Peachtree and our traffic stinks and we can’t drive in the snow and our teams always blow the big game and we often don’t show up to watch them play. There’s truth in all of above. (Indeed, there were empty seats at MBS on Saturday.) But there’s a new truth, too. We have a nice new baseball stadium and a really nice football stadium, with a refurbished basketball arena coming soon. We’re doing just fine, thanks for asking.
Oh, and just for the record: It doesn’t snow here that often.