Gathering spaces are a big part of Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s game plan

When architects unveiled early design ideas for the new Falcons stadium more than four years ago, one of the features that created a lot of buzz was a 100-yard-long bar.

The concept has been sobered up from what most fans probably envisioned at the time, but an evolution of it can be found on the upper deck when Mercedes-Benz Stadium opens Saturday night with a Falcons exhibition game.

Now it’s called the “100 Yard Club,” featuring a length-of-the-field row of concession stands with bars on both ends. The floor is painted green with yard markers on it, corresponding to the field below. Eleven-foot-tall posters of Falcons stars adorn the inviting space.

The 100 Yard Club is among the stadium’s many responses to what fans at all ticket-price points have come to demand in sports venues: social spaces where they can gather to mingle, dine and drink, whether before games, during games or at halftime.

Fans increasingly “want a much more social experience,” said Bill Johnson, senior vice president of global architecture firm HOK. “They want to be more mobile and active and experience whatever event it is from different points of view.”

It was Johnson, Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s lead architect, who originally pitched the 100-yard bar idea.

“It was funny in a certain regard because everybody imagined this cocktail bar that was 100 yards long,” he recalled. “Then I would say, ‘No, it’s a salad bar. Dessert bar.’ It was always meant to be diverse food offerings.

“The whole point was that we wanted something special for the people in the upper deck. My thing with the 100 yards was I wanted you to know where you were, relative to the football game, when you were out there getting a beer and a sandwich. … It took a lot of twists and turns, but ultimately I’m pleased with how it landed.”

It is one of almost-too-many-to-count gathering spaces scattered around the 2 million-square-foot, $1.5 billion stadium.

At the high end of the spectrum are the 190 suites and five posh private clubs. The private clubs are attached to 7,600 premium seats and accessible to fans who paid $10,000 to $45,000 in one-time fees for personal seat licenses and another $325 to $385 per game for Falcons season tickets. Their amenities include access to on-field patio areas.

But other spaces, such as the 100 Yard Club, are open to everyone in the 71,000-seat stadium.

“There are so many places,” Johnson said. “I think people are going to discover them throughout the first few seasons.”

They can be found on all three levels of the stadium, and some 2,000 TVs throughout the building should enable wandering fans to stay on top of the action on the field.

The AT&T Perch is an interactive gathering spot on the middle level behind the west end zone, featuring three video walls that can provide updates on other games. Mike Gomes, senior vice president of fan experience for Arthur Blank’s sports properties, described this area as “fantasy football headquarters.”

The Budweiser Biergarten is a beer-garden concept with communal tables on the lower level behind the west end zone. Nine rectangular “neighborhood” bars are found on the lower and middle levels.

Two sky bridges, located in the middle and upper levels in front of a towering wall of windows above the east end zone, also figure to be popular gathering spots. From there, you can turn one way to see the field and the other way for an extraordinary view of the Atlanta skyline.

“I think people are going to go there and stay all game,” Johnson said.

Stadium officials expect the "front porch,' a 61,000-square-foot outdoor plaza that is within the ticketed security perimeter, to be a bustling area for fans before games. It features a sculpture of a falcon with a wingspan of 64 feet.

The first stop for many fans after they enter the stadium doors from the front porch will be a large "entry foyer" with a captivating view of the field and the halo-shaped video board. Some stadium staffers have taken to calling this space "Times Square" because it is a gathering spot punctuated by video displays, including a 101-foot-tall column wrapped in LED display board.

“Without a doubt in my mind, that will become the most popular selfie photo in the city of Atlanta, standing in that location with the field and the halo board behind you,” Gomes said.

The plan, he said, is to open the front porch and entry foyer three hours before games and the rest of the stadium two hours before games.

Many of the gathering spaces are intended to drive revenue from sponsorships or food and beverage sales. They also are an acknowledgement that the in-stadium experience must be enhanced to compete with the comfort, convenience and cost savings of watching games on big-screen TVs at home.

“At the end of the day, we know our competition is the living room,” said Steve Cannon, CEO of Falcons and Atlanta United parent company AMB Group.

The industry-wide emphasis on building social spaces into sports venues, also evidenced at the Braves' new SunTrust Park, signals a shift in the way many fans, especially younger ones, want their stadium experience.

“It’s changing,” said Johnson, design principal for HOK’s sports practice. “I think it is coming from the fans because they have access to social media and the Internet and replays, and they can slow things down, watch multiple things at the same time. It’s less critical that you’re sitting in one place (throughout a game).

“I don’t think we’re ever going to go back because technology has sort of unburdened us from feeling like we are going to miss something if we’re not sitting in our seat all the time.”


Look for stories about various aspects of Mercedes-Benz Stadium all week in the AJC, including these:

Tuesday: The retractable roof

Wednesday: The "halo" video board

Thursday: Social spaces

Friday: Technology

Saturday: A magnet for marquee events