After 19-year absence, Super Bowl returns to Atlanta

Super Bowl 53 will be played Feb. 3, 2019

Even after an ice storm disrupted Atlanta's Super Bowl week in January 2000, local sports and tourism boosters thought the big game would be back here in nine or 10 years, tops.

It took 19 years – and a new stadium.

Atlanta tried to land the 2009 and 2010 Super Bowls, but NFL owners said no to both bids five months apart. In May 2005, the 32 owners voted to play the 2009 Super Bowl in Tampa instead of Atlanta. In October 2005, they voted to award the 2010 Super Bowl to Miami over Atlanta.

In both votes, memories of Atlanta’s cold, icy week in 2000 helped swing the decision to the Florida cities, owners and league officials said publicly and privately at the time.

» Looking back: Previous two Super Bowls in Atlanta

“We had a good package. We showed how the Georgia Dome could be improved. We showed how the experience for the teams and the economics for the league would be better than they had been for the 2000 Super Bowl,” Falcons president and CEO Rich McKay said last week, recalling the bids for the 2009 and 2010 games.  “But the memory of the weather, which was just extreme and very unlucky, was very much in (the owners’) minds. We could not overcome it.”

After the second rejection, Atlanta retreated for a decade from pursuing a Super Bowl.

“It’s very hard to get a community bid – in our case to involve the city of Atlanta, the governor’s office and the Legislature – and then lose,” McKay said. “It is just not a very positive experience. In our mind, we thought if we were really going to be a player for this event again, we were going to need a new stadium. And so we waited until we had the new stadium under construction to make the next bid.”

That came to a vote in May 2016, when NFL owners awarded the 2019 Super Bowl to Atlanta over competing bids from Miami (again), Tampa (again) and New Orleans. The finalists were New Orleans and Atlanta, with Atlanta prevailing on the fourth ballot.

To their surprise, Atlanta bid committee members got no questions from NFL owners that day about weather. Maybe enough time had passed to soften the memories of January 2000. But more likely, the owners simply set aside their weather worries because of their inclination to award the Super Bowl – at least once – to spiffy new stadiums built with the assistance of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

James Calloway throws salt on the walkway in front the Georgia Dome Saturday, Jan. 29, 2000, after an ice and rain storm coated the city just one day before Super Bowl XXXIV between the St. Louis Rams will be meeting the Tennessee Titans.
James Calloway throws salt on the walkway in front the Georgia Dome Saturday, Jan. 29, 2000, after an ice and rain storm coated the city just one day before Super Bowl XXXIV between the St. Louis Rams will be meeting the Tennessee Titans.

Credit: Dave Martin

Credit: Dave Martin

If one thing can consistently trump weather in swaying the NFL’s Super Bowl site choices, it’s new stadiums, which are a boon to league profits.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be the ninth “new” stadium to host the Super Bowl since 2004, a list that includes the homes of the Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, New York Giants/Jets, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions and Houston Texans.

This is the second year in a row and the third time in four years that the Super Bowl will be played in a new stadium, following last year's game at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis and the 2016 game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Those stadiums hosted the Super Bowl in their second seasons of operation, the earliest the NFL allows, as will Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The NFL says it doesn’t guarantee Super Bowls to new stadiums, and indeed the final determination is made by a secret-ballot vote of the owners. But it keeps turning out that way, which is no accident.

Typically, a domed or retractable-roof stadium is required for the NFL to play the Super Bowl in a cold-weather city. But an exception was made even to that practice when the 2014 Super Bowl was played in the outdoors MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

The Super Bowl was played twice in the Georgia Dome, first in 1994, and when public funding was approved for Mercedes-Benz Stadium it essentially became a foregone conclusion that the event would return to Atlanta -- at least once.

The Falcons and the city want more than that.

“Our goal – and I know the Falcons’ goal in building that stadium – isn’t to host a Super Bowl, but to host multiple Super Bowls,” said Brett Daniels, chief operating officer of the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee.

McKay said he is optimistic Mercedes-Benz Stadium will host numerous Super Bowls, citing the advantage of having the Georgia World Congress Center, Centennial Olympic Park and other venues for ancillary events within walking distance of the stadium and downtown hotel rooms.  But he acknowledged the competition will be tough in the future with new stadiums under construction in Los Angeles (already awarded the 2022 Super Bowl) and Las Vegas joining the pursuit with the likes of Miami (next year’s site), Tampa (2021), Phoenix (2023), New Orleans (2024), Dallas, Atlanta and others.

“There are plenty of places that are going to be a player in it,” McKay said. “But I believe we can make a strong case, and I believe this Super Bowl will matter in the way we operate.”

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