This Super Bowl is Arthur Blank’s victory lap. Being Arthur Blank, he has turned it into laps, plural. Heck, he has turned it into a one-car Daytona 500.
You couldn’t swing a cat this week without hitting the peripatetic Falcons owner. He constituted one-fifth of a welcome-to-Atlanta briefing Monday. He held his own media session Wednesday. He went live on the NFL Network from Opening Night. Two days later, he navigated the length and breadth of Radio Row. He sat still for CNBC, the chyron of which characterized him as “legendary Falcons owner Arthur Blank.” Oh, and he made time for a private audience with three AJC reporters, just after he’d finished with the BBC.
There’s a part of me that thinks, “Why not?” More than any other person, Arthur M. Blank is the reason Super Bowl 53 will be staged off Northside Drive. If you’re looking for Atlanta’s First Citizen, you need look nowhere else. He co-founded Home Depot. His Falcons graced a Super Bowl two years ago. His Atlanta United went from expansion team to MLS champs in two years and obliterated attendance records en route. He was the driving force behind Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He deserves to be recognized, perhaps even as “legendary.”
And yet: There’s another part of me that wonders if Arthur M. Blank needs to work so hard to present himself as … well, Arthur M. Blank. He’s the only NFL owner who makes a weekly fourth-quarter sideline promenade. He’s the only owner who sits front-row at his coach’s postgame news conference. (He’s not quite as visible at Atlanta United games, but that surely has to do with soccer having no sideline per se, and even then I keep waiting for him to sneak onto the pitch to take a corner kick.)
Give Blank this: As aggressively high-profile as he is, he takes verbal pains not to come across as a braggart. He doesn’t overdose on the first-person singular, opting instead for the royal “we” or “our.” Asked if this Super Bowl is indeed a function of his force of will, he said:
“I would definitely not say that. The Super Bowl, the time we won the vote … I think Atlanta earned that. This is not about the Falcons. It’s certainly not about me. It is about the new stadium, which I think in part is a way for the NFL to say thank you for your public/private partnership that was great. Which it was. We’re indebted to the state and the city and the city council for the support we’ve gotten from them. Basically (it’s) our stadium – most of the resources are ours but, you know, the city and state were great to be supportive there. And our fans have been great. … Atlanta really earned the Super Bowl.”
Then: “The Super Bowl 19 years ago not only didn’t have our stadium, but it didn’t have the National Center for Human Rights Museum, didn’t have the Aquarium, didn’t have the College Football Hall of Fame, didn’t have the Children’s Museum, didn’t have the World of Coke, didn’t have Centennial Park … well, it had Centennial Park, but not in its current formulation, which is twice the size it was then. Those all speak to what Atlanta has done to earn every national event we’ve had. So it’s not just about the Super Bowl. It’s about the college national championship game we had last year, Super Bowl this year, Final Four next year. It’s the first time in the history of the country where those three premier events are being held in one facility in back-to-back years. That has nothing to do with me. It has to do with Atlanta, and it has to do with the commitments that many people have made to this city.”
This was a laudable attempt to share credit. It also was a pass, as it were, that fell incomplete. Without MBS, there’s no SB 53 in the A-T-L. Without AMB, there’s no MBS. From the moment he took ownership of the Falcons – 17 years ago this week, if you’re keeping score – Blank made it clear he considered the Georgia Dome, which had just turned 10, substandard to his needs. It took him more than a decade to persuade the city and state to see it his way, but you don’t build the empire that is Home Depot without learning the value of persistent nagging. (Also known as “lobbying.”)
He wanted what he wanted, and ultimately he got it. He invariably does. He also wanted others -- i.e., taxpayers -- to help pay for it. He got that, too. It ain’t all philanthropy, folks.
Much is being made this week about Blank’s “visionary” decision to sell $2 hot dogs in his $1.5 billion pleasure palace. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell commented on it at length Wednesday. That’s a story, it must be said, that plays better with out-of-towners. We Atlantans recall that PSLs – essentially the right to buy season tickets – for MBS started at $500 and went all the way to $45,000. The $2 hot dogs were merely a twist on the “loss leader” concept, with which all merchandisers are familiar. Think of Home Depot advertising $10 rakes to get you in the door, hoping you’ll be tempted to buy that riding mower for $1,900.
Atlanta United fans have taken to calling Blank “Uncle Arthur.” Those who’ve sat across a boardroom table use other words to describe him, “avuncular” not among them. And that’s fine. Nobody ever made a dime, let alone several trillion dimes, by being a shrinking violet.
Amid this week’s Blank Media Blitz, the man himself was asked if he ever felt overexposed. “Me, personally?” he said. “Not really, as long as I’m in the right venues and the right forums. I don’t want to take the place of anyone else in the organization, but I think one of the beauties of the NFL is that clubs’ fans know (what) the identity is. They know who the family is. They want to hear from the owner periodically. They don’t want to hear about me in terms of who I’d pick or what kind of schemes I’d run because that’s, you know, inappropriate. But in terms of direction of the franchise and the folks we’re hiring, folks we’re keeping, things we’re doing focused on the fans, the fan experience at the stadium, the community involvement, giving back – all those things they do want to hear from the owner.”
As for SB 53: “I don’t want to wait another 19 years for the next Super Bowl. I want to make sure we’re back. We ordered really good weather this week, and we’ve been very fortunate with that. We all did our dancing and our prayers and everything else we could to make sure that happened. But I think the way that fans are going to feel when they’re in this city – only 70,000 will be in the stadium, but a million people will be coming through Atlanta – they’re going to feel the warmth of this city, which is real and it’s genuine. It’s nothing we train for. People here, it’s part of their nature. I think it’ll be a great experience, and hopefully we’ll be able to get back in the rotation.”
Earlier in the conversation, the man who’s trying not to preen conceded that he wouldn’t mind performing the architectural equivalent of spiking the ball. Goodell will decide whether the MBS roof will be open for the Super Bowl, but Blank allowed this much: “I want to show that hardware off – eight petals (meaning sections) opening and closing in eight minutes. We’re fully rehearsed and ready to go.”
You’d better believe they are. You’d also better believe that, should the famously finicky roof not hit its mark on Super Sunday, Uncle Arthur’s extended family will include a fresh set of engineers come Monday.