Atlanta sports in 1996: How things were and how they have changed

A scene from September 1996: Olympic Stadium, which would become Turner Field, on the left and Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which would be demolished, on the right. (AJC file photo/Joe McTyre)
Caption
A scene from September 1996: Olympic Stadium, which would become Turner Field, on the left and Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which would be demolished, on the right. (AJC file photo/Joe McTyre)

Credit: JOE MCTYRE

Credit: JOE MCTYRE

Atlanta’s sports landscape was dramatically different 25 years ago – and not just because the Olympics came to town.

All of the local pro sports franchises were under different ownership then than now. All played in different venues then than now.

A quarter-century after Atlanta hosted the world’s biggest sporting event, here’s a 25-step look-back at the frenzied state of local sports in 1996 and some of the changes that followed:

1. The Braves were the defending World Series champions. It remains the only time since the franchise moved to Atlanta in 1966 that the Braves could make that claim.

2. The venues for Atlanta’s pro sports teams were Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium (Braves and Olympic baseball), The Omni (Hawks and Olympic volleyball) and the Georgia Dome (Falcons and Olympic gymnastics/basketball/handball). The first two were imploded a week apart in 1997, the latter in 2017.

3. The Georgia Dome was just four years old when it hosted one of the more memorable moments of the 1996 Olympics: Kerri Strug vaulting on an injured ankle to clinch the United States’ first team gold medal in women’s gymnastics and then being carried in coach Bela Karolyi’s arms to the medal ceremony. The Dome would last only until age 25 before it was replaced by Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

4. The second-biggest sports event to come to Atlanta in 1996 was the World Series, for the second consecutive year and the fourth time in six years.

5. Alas, the Braves failed to defend their 1995 World Series title, losing in six games to the New York Yankees despite winning the first two. The Braves haven’t been back in the World Series since 1999, a 21-year absence that would have been unthinkable in the 1990s.

6. The 85,000-seat Centennial Olympic Stadium – where Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic cauldron, where Michael Johnson set a world record in the 200-meter dash and an Olympic record in the 400 meters, where Carl Lewis won his ninth gold medal -- was downsized and converted to 50,000-seat Turner Field after the Olympics.

7. The Olympic stadium has proved to be Atlanta’s most adaptable of venues, evolving from hosting Olympic track and field to MLB to college football. The Braves made it their home from 1997 through 2016, and when the team left for Cobb County in 2017, the stadium was downsized again and turned into a home for Georgia State football. It has bucked Atlanta’s trend of demolishing sports venues.

8. There was so much going on in Atlanta sports in the summer of 1996. Turner Broadcasting System was deep into negotiations to bring an NHL expansion franchise to the city. The Thrashers began play in 1999 and left the city for Winnipeg in 2011.

9. A $214 million deal was reached in the fall of 1996 to build a new Hawks (and Thrashers) arena on the site of The Omni. Construction on what would become Philips Arena -- now State Farm Arena -- began the following year.

10. On the day before ‘96 Olympics began, the Atlanta Sports Council quietly convened a meeting to discuss a bid to bring the 2000 Super Bowl to the Georgia Dome. NFL owners awarded that game to Atlanta a few months later.

11. Price tag of that Super Bowl bid was $7.5 million, which seemed high at the time but was far surpassed a couple of decades later by the $46 million bid required to bring the 2019 Super Bowl here.

12. Turner Broadcasting, which had owned the Braves and Hawks since the 1970s, was acquired by Time Warner in October 1996. That signaled a seismic shift in Atlanta sports that eventually would end Ted Turner’s control of the teams.

13. Chipper Jones was in his second big-league season, launching a career that would take him to the Hall of Fame.

14. The Braves had three other future Hall of Famers on their 1996 roster: pitchers Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz. Smoltz had the best season of the three that year, winning 24 regular-season games, four postseason games and the National League Cy Young award.

15. A 19-year-old rookie outfielder, Andruw Jones, arrived in Atlanta in August 1996 and two months later hit home runs in his first two World Series at-bats.

16. It wasn’t a good year for the Falcons. Bobby Hebert started 13 of the 16 games at quarterback after Jeff George was suspended (and eventually released) as a result of a sideline confrontation with coach June Jones in the third game of the season. The Falcons finished 3-13.

17. Arthur Blank was still at Home Depot, six years away from buying the Falcons.

18. It wasn’t a good year for the state’s college football teams, either. Both Georgia, in Jim Donnan’s first year as coach, and Georgia Tech, in George O’Leary’s second full year, finished 5-6.

19. Kirby Smart was a sophomore defensive back for Georgia that year.

20. Displaced by the Olympics and Paralympics in the summer of 1996, Georgia Tech’s football players moved to North Georgia College (now University of North Georgia) in Dahlonega for summer classes, workouts and preseason practices.

21. In Athens, Sanford Stadium was temporarily without its hedges. They had to be removed to accommodate Olympic soccer. The U.S. women’s team defeated China for the gold medal before 76,481 fans, at the time a record for a women’s sporting event.

22. A few days before the Olympics began, the Hawks made a stir by signing free-agent center Dikembe Mutombo to a five-year, $56 million contract. The Hawks won 56 regular-season games in the 1996-97 season and lost to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the second round of the playoffs.

23. It was a lot less expensive to attend sports events a quarter-century ago. Prime field-level seats at Braves games cost $17.

24. As if enough hadn’t happened in Atlanta sports in 1996, Evander Holyfield brought home the world heavyweight boxing championship for the third time by upsetting heavily favored Mike Tyson in a November fight in Las Vegas. Atlanta honored him with a downtown victory parade the following week.

25. How long has it been? Neither Ronald Acuna nor Trae Young had been born in 1996.