Mercedes-Benz Stadium welcomes ‘milestone’ of large Atlanta United crowd

Atlanta United fans raise a giant “Thank you” banner before the game against Chicago Fire at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, April 24, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Atlanta United fans raise a giant “Thank you” banner before the game against Chicago Fire at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, April 24, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The reopening of Atlanta sports, which has accelerated recently, will gain more momentum Saturday when Mercedes-Benz Stadium returns to 100% seating capacity in its two lower levels for Atlanta United’s match against Montreal.

A crowd of close to 40,000 fans is expected, the largest gathering in the stadium since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic 14 months ago.

“I’m excited because it represents another milestone, a checkmark along the way toward normalcy,” said Steve Cannon, chief executive officer of AMB Sports and Entertainment, the parent company of Atlanta United and the Falcons. “Are we going to get to full normal on Saturday? Absolutely not. But it’s going to be a nice progression, and I do feel confident that progression is going to continue.”

ExploreHow Atlanta is reopening public events and public gatherings as COVID limits are eased

Atlanta United’s return to full capacity in the stadium’s most common soccer seating configuration – the two lower levels open, the upper deck closed – follows the Braves’ move to 100% capacity. Several other local sports entities also have announced plans to return to pre-pandemic attendance levels, including Atlanta Motor Speedway, the Falcons and Georgia Tech football.

The Braves drew more than 107,000 fans for last weekend’s three-game series at Truist Park, and Cannon said he perceives a growing demand for sports-event tickets.

“I was just hoping to get back to some semblance of pre-pandemic, but if you think about what’s going on with the economy and with the amount of pent-up demand -- once you start to unleash that … we might have trouble accommodating everybody,” Cannon said. “Because we’re already seeing robust demand, even at this early phase.

“We operated in the toughest environment the sports industry has ever operated in in 2020. We operated into a gale-force headwind, and I suspect that the winds have now shifted. We’re going to catch a light tailwind, and that is going to increase in its strength. … We’re already starting to feel the early signs of that.”

The default rate on Falcons personal seat licenses this year is the lowest since Mercedes-Benz Stadium opened in 2017, and sales of new Falcons season tickets are up from 2019, Cannon said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, he said, Atlanta United was still selling tickets for Saturday night’s game and had a limited supply remaining from the 42,500 seats in the two lower levels (2,500 of which are not usable for this game because of MLS requirements).

Cannon said a “tiny” number of season-ticket holders told the organization they won’t feel comfortable attending games in 2021 and have been allowed to defer their payments into next year. A slightly larger number, “in the hundreds,” have communicated that they don’t feel comfortable returning to the stadium this month and will reassess in June, he said.

When the Braves and Atlanta United announced plans to resume 100% seating capacities, up from 50% last month, two public health experts at Georgia State cautioned that reopening any stadium to full capacity is premature and risky, given the sheer number of people crowded together.

“At the end, we’re all trying to lead our lives and run our businesses and do them as healthily as we can,” Cannon said. “We’re going to bend over backwards to create an environment that folks want to come to and want to come out to knowing there’s still residual risk out there. … We know that we’re still in a special operating environment.

“Hopefully, this year we’re on a trajectory toward increasing safety, increasing confidence. And we’re hoping that doesn’t take a step backward.”

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Steve Cannon (left), CEO of AMB Sports and Entertainment, confers with Gov. Brian Kemp as operations get underway for Mercedes-Benz Stadium to become the largest community vaccination center in the Southeast on March 23, 2021. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Steve Cannon (left), CEO of AMB Sports and Entertainment, confers with Gov. Brian Kemp as operations get underway for Mercedes-Benz Stadium to become the largest community vaccination center in the Southeast  on March 23, 2021.  (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Steve Cannon (left), CEO of AMB Sports and Entertainment, confers with Gov. Brian Kemp as operations get underway for Mercedes-Benz Stadium to become the largest community vaccination center in the Southeast on March 23, 2021. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

All of Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s COVID-19 protocols with the exception of socially distanced seating will remain in place Saturday, Cannon said. That includes a requirement for fans to wear masks except when eating or drinking at their seats, although Cannon acknowledged compliance “will be spotty” based on other events.

“Our security teams know light touch, soft touch, remind people, but we’re not going to get into confrontations with folks on mask policies,” he said.

Stadium officials plan to hold as many events as possible with the building’s retractable roof open, especially during the pandemic.

“Every single event at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, weather permitting, will have an open roof,” Cannon said. “Our fans have already told us they think that’s better, as opposed to a closed environment. Unless we absolutely can’t do it … we will always be open this year.”

While Atlanta United will use only the stadium’s two lower levels for most games, as is the team’s typical practice, it plans to utilize all three levels on two occasions this season: July 24 against Columbus and Aug. 15 against LAFC.

“We’ve done a great job over the last four years of picking the right number of games to go full 72,000 capacity,” Cannon said. “We’re careful about flexing up to full stadium where we feel confident that we can fill the building. We did that in 2019 six times. For this year, obviously we’re not going to do that (many).

“Right now, in the early phases of coming back, it’s all about keeping your fingers on the pulse of consumer sentiment and demand and being smart about supply and demand, keeping them as balanced as you can.”

Mercedes-Benz Stadium will open all three levels of its seats for the first time since the start of the pandemic for the Mexico men’s national team’s match against Honduras on June 12. Mexico played in the stadium in 2019, drawing an announced attendance of 51,834 for a game against Venezuela.