Atlanta's new $1.5 billion stadium ups the ante for Tampa, other sites

The new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, the site of FSU-Alabama, ups the ante for Tampa and other sites seeking future big-time events. CHRIS URSO   |   Times
The new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, the site of FSU-Alabama, ups the ante for Tampa and other sites seeking future big-time events.CHRIS URSO | Times

ATLANTA — Paul Johnson was getting Georgia Tech prepped for Monday's game against No. 25 Tennessee when he turned to someone at the gargantuan stadium surrounding him.

"You, too, can have one of these for a billion dollars," Johnson said.

The brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium is actually $1.5 billion, but what's $500 million between friends? Either way, Tampa's road to hosting big-time events just got a lot tougher.

Although the Falcons played two preseason games at their new home, Saturday night's season-opening matchup between No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Florida State was the real premiere for the sparkling coliseum. And it delivered.

At 30 stories tall with 27,000 tons of steel supporting 2 million square feet, the new stadium dwarfs the soon-to-be demolished Georgia Dome next door. The city skyline looks through windows behind the east end zone. Instead of traditional video boards, 63,800 square feet of glowing halo boards circle the building, just below the one-of-a-kind roof.

And Saturday was only a soft debut. A park will appear next door, once the Georgia Dome comes down. The retractable roof isn't fully functional, but once it is, it will open and close like a camera shutter.

"Even the opening and closing of the roof is going to be a unique and awesome experience for the fans," Peach Bowl president and CEO Gary Stokan said.

For all of the amenities — including 1,200 more beer taps than its predecessor — here's the biggest testament to the spectacle of the new stadium: FSU coach Jimbo Fisher and 'Bama coach Nick Saban typically don't take their teams to the stadium before the game. Both broke their routines Friday to give their players a chance to gawk before kickoff.

"Hopefully when the game comes," Saban said, "they'll be focused on the game."

Saturday's game, which wasn't over at press time, was the first of many blockbuster events coming. The College Football Playoff national championship kicks off Jan. 8. Super Bowl LIII follows the next year, with the Final Four up in 2020.

"One of the purposes that we established early on in building the stadium is that it would be the home for many great events," Falcons owner Arthur Blank said before kickoff.

Tampa is hungry to keep doing the same, although its lack of a domed stadium will relegate it to earlier rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Raymond James Stadium keeps getting renovations to try to remain competitive; it unveiled its latest upgrades (including a new Bucs locker room) last month.

Playoff officials raved about how Tampa and RJS fared as hosts for January's title game.

The city should be a strong contender when the next wave of championship games are announced this spring. Tampa is also the replacement host for Super Bowl LV, thanks to stadium delays in Los Angeles.

But the landscape for hosting big sporting events is intense and expensive. And it got even fiercer Saturday, with the grand debut of football's newest crown jewel.

Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.