As a new stadium opens, we recall the game-changing Georgia Dome

Credit: Mark Bradley

Credit: Mark Bradley

Those who’ve ventured into the completed Mercedes-Benz Stadium – I haven’t yet – emerge goggle-eyed. Common description: “Better than Jerry World,” meaning AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. That palace is my yardstick. If you trump Jerry Jones’ place, you’re the new champion building.

Saturday’s Falcons-Cardinals exhibition will be my first look at MBS, and I’m fully prepared to be impressed. At $ 1.5 billion, it better be nice. (And maybe the retractable roof will someday retract.) I do, however, offer this caveat: I’m not sure I’ll ever be as impressed by a sporting edifice as on Aug. 23, 1992.

That was opening day for the building that now sits next door to MBS, empty and facing imminent demolition. Words typed by these fingers that Sunday: “The Georgia Dome is a wonder, a marvel, a sensory delight. It will be a source of pride for this city for the next 30, 40, 50 years. With the single exception of hiring John Schuerholz as the Braves' GM, the Dome is the best thing to happen to Atlanta pro sports since the big-league franchises set up shop.”

Warning: I was just getting going. “The Dome is to other stadiums as a Ferrari is to your granny's clunker. The Dome is spacious but not far-flung, enclosed but not dark, high-tech but not gimmicky. Even if you hate domes as a concept, you'll like the reality of this one. And if your sensibilities aren't offended by the notion of football indoors, you'll think you've wandered into Disney World.”

Let the record show that I overshot: The Dome lasted not 50 years but 25. As for the rest of my gushing … well, at the risk of sounding immodest, I got that right. The Dome changed Atlanta and Atlanta’s sports. The Dome made us a destination for every major event. Without the Dome, there would have been no Super Bowl here, no continuing SEC championship, no Final Four beyond the Omni’s 1977 one-off. There would have been no Olympics.

Atlanta won its Games before the building opened, but the Dome was critical to the bid. Those who were around in the Summer of ’96 will recall the dizzying feeling of entering the Dome and seeing the curtain dividing it in half: On one side were gymnastics and the Magnificent Seven; on the other, men’s basketball and the second Dream Team.

Before the Dome, the Falcons shared Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium with the Braves. (Without the Dome, no Olympics. Without the Olympics, no Turner Field.) Not to speak ill of the old joint, but it was a dump. It looked exactly like what it was – a charmless saucer erected in a rush to accommodate our city’s first two major-league franchises.

The only annual event to call the old stadium home was the cursed-by-weather Peach Bowl. In its outdoor manifestation, the Peach was dying. In 1989, its participants were Georgia and Syracuse. Attendance was 44,991. The next year Auburn played Army. Attendance was 38,912. As we know, Georgia and Auburn can draw more than that for scrimmages.

Indoors, the Peach became a vibrant entity. (Full credit to the Chamber of Commerce.) When college football adopted a playoff, the Dome made the rotation. In January it staged the Alabama-Washington semifinal. In 4 ½ months, MBS will be the beneficiary of the national-title tilt.

It’s sometimes said, mostly by Arthur Blank employees, that MBS will “take Atlanta to a different level.” The cold truth is that we were already there. MBS will have more bells and whistles – it also will cost seven times what it predecessor did – and maybe Atlanta wouldn’t have gotten another Super Bowl after the ice storm of 2000. But the Dome did nothing wrong except age.

Blank was never a Dome fan. From the moment he took ownership of the Falcons, he pressured Dome folks to upgrade, upgrade, upgrade. (Fact: The Dome wasn’t yet 10 years old when Blank bought the team.) He wanted what every pro owner wants – to run and collect the profits, and not just NFL-related ones, from a shiny new stadium. Technically the Falcons don’t own MBS – the state does – but they control it in a way they didn’t control the Dome.

Fair play to Blank: He’s a businessmen who wants to make money, and he drummed up enough support for his stadium-building campaign. He got what he wanted. He invariably does. And I’m sure MBS will be a peach of a place. But to say it’s a game- and city-changer … well, no. The Dome already changed that game and reconfigured this city.

On that Sunday 25 years ago, Mike Kenn, one of the greatest Falcons ever, said of the Dome: “A place like this is a reflection of the growth of the city of Atlanta. I've been in quite a few cities, and there's none any finer than this."

That was something we couldn’t have said before that day. We’ve been able to say it ever since. The Dome did that. May it rest in peace.

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