'Building Disneyland': Falcons ramp up for return of fans to Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Falcons CEO Steve Cannon discusses the gameplan with staff in the club level at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Michael Rothstein/ESPN

ATLANTA -- Steve Cannon walks into the Harrah's Club inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and it's more karaoke festival than business meeting. Two hours and three minutes before gates will open on this Sunday evening in August and what could be an antiseptic atmosphere is rocking, two staffers belting out the Boyz II Men R&B classic "End of the Road."

Cannon, 60, smiles and slips into the back. He won't sing on this day -- the uber-caffeinated CEO of Arthur M. Blank Sports and Entertainment here for a presentation more than joining the party.

But the atmosphere makes him happy. These are the moments he wants to see, that he has missed. "This is so awesome," Cannon says in a low tone underneath the music. He means it. It's the type of culture he has strived to create, where people are having fun at their jobs.

He's here -- at the Captain's Huddle -- presenting an award, the first stop of many during the walkabout ritual he has had since Mercedes-Benz Stadium opened in 2017. Before fans arrive, Cannon walks laps throughout the Benz. Part inspection, part exercise, part management style, it gives him a chance to connect with his employees and staffers, to make sure everything is pristine in the place he describes as "a stadium that aspires to be a Ritz Carlton."

At 4:13 p.m., four hours before the Atlanta Falcons will kick off their final preseason game against the Cleveland Browns, the music dies down and Cannon addresses the approximately 40 people inside the briefing. Before they honor a staffer, Cannon is candid: "The next couple of weeks are going to be tough." The stadium staff -- mostly part-timers -- are in the midst of a stretch of Kanye West listening events, preseason football, two college football games, Atlanta United soccer games and culminating in Sunday's regular-season opener between the Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles.

After the year the hospitality industry endured, the NFL managed and that the world navigated through the COVID-19 pandemic, none of this is lost on Cannon as he begins his talk and then his walk.

"Last year," the West Point graduate said. "Was the biggest leadership challenge of my life."

COVID made everything more difficult

Walking with Cannon is an adventure. In his dark gray suit with black shoes, a light blue shirt and gray socks with blue, pink and yellow stripes, he'll be tired and sweaty by the time he's done with his four- to five-mile journey. He has no wardrobe change.

As he walks and talks, Cannon's eyes are constantly on the move. He greets an associate and snags an errant piece of trash from the ground -- two actions consistent through his two-hour walk.

He processes everything as he goes, explaining how in the year of COVID-19, everything had to be managed differently. His organization that requires its third-party vendors -- Levy Restaurants for food and S.A.F.E. for security -- to go through their pre-hiring "Welcome Home" training explaining the organization's core values and the same game-day huddles all of his staffers have.

COVID made all of this more challenging.

"We had to take a lot of our training online, which was hard for us, to be honest," said Brent Miller, the senior director of guest and member services at the stadium. "Everything we do is very intentional with personalization. There's so much intentionality in that to make sure there is a personal feel in everything that we do.

"So for us to not be able to do training in-person or hiring in-person, it kind of goes against who we believe we are."

Cannon made the goal of his staff to ensure the 10% occupancy allowed into the stadium in 2020 the best, safest experience they could, starting with making sure the staff was as comfortable as they could be in an uncomfortable world.

Cannon held daily 9 a.m. check-in calls with the leadership of all Arthur Blank's businesses. Over Microsoft Teams, he saw into their personal lives -- their kitchens, living rooms and basements -- because the pandemic led people to reveal more of themselves. Like a childhood show-and-tell, he had employees grab one thing in their house that meant a lot to them and had them share with the group, an attempt to bond over computer screens.

"That was a great icebreaker to say the human connection mattered and when we're sent to the four corners we have to do extra things to stay connected to and in touch with your associates," Cannon said. "That lesson I'll never forget. That's what's changed for me."

During those meetings, they discussed mechanics of a restart. Cannon never doubted sports and fans would return. Last season was full of protocols and mask mandates, of ever-changing policies and always-present anxiety.

This season has those, too, although there is more room for choice. Mercedes-Benz Stadium will leave the roof open for all Falcons and United games as the default, closing only in case of lightning. This was not always the case and may take away some competitive advantage. Cannon made clear that's secondary to safety while the Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to run through the United States. In clubs, masks are mandated. In the stadium itself, they are recommended but not required.

The Falcons were the first NFL team to be fully vaccinated. Employees of owner Arthur Blank's businesses are required to be vaccinated. Blank encourages vaccinations himself. But Blank told ESPN they had not discussed vaccination as an entry requirement.

"A lot of it is totally related to the percentage of people that have gotten vaccinated or not," Blank said. "And so we'll continue to monitor that and watch it very closely."

Despite the challenges of last year, Cannon understands everything is fluid. Cannon and his staff spent last season enforcing mask mandates. This season, they'll be there to remind people and have internal televisions explaining rules, but with different requirements for vaccinated versus unvaccinated, Cannon wants to avoid having his staffers in the middle of those confrontations.

But they've had run-throughs on everything. They've seen 30,000 in the building for a Kanye West listening event, 60,000 for soccer matches and massive crowds for college football. But it's all been a leadup to the Falcons.

"Look, I'm excited, right? I happen to know people need this. We need outlets in life," Cannon said. "We've been separated, isolated and in the end, that has impacts, whether it's kids in school that aren't in school. If you have routines that bring friends and family together on a regular basis and suddenly take that away. There's downside to all that.

"So we are super excited. This is our business. This is our product."

Building Disneyland

Cannon stands inside the field-level Mercedes-Benz Club as players begin walking out for warm-ups. As he's explaining his philosophy of modern stadium construction, longtime Falcons long snapper Josh Harris walks up to say hello.

They engage in conversation for a moment, similar to how Cannon chats with ushers and concession captains and suite escorts. The difference, as Harris walks away, is Cannon wrestled with Harris' uncle at the United States Military Academy.

Then he dives back into conversation.

"You got to build Disneyland," Cannon said. "To meet the needs of fans, you've got to create compelling spaces. This alone, this is part of the experience, you come out here, I can take my beer, you come out, look how far I am away from the NFL's best and brightest."

Part of the philosophy is usage, leading to one of the stranger requests of his career this summer: Kanye West wanted to move in as he finished his recently released "Donda."

West commandeered a field-level coaches room and the cheerleader locker room, the Benz accommodating West and his entourage with requests for 100 beds and whatever else they needed.

Cannon and West met a couple of times. He and his staff let West know when stadium events were happening, offering the opportunity to stay "but just know, we have a stadium to run." Cannon said when West hung out, he usually chilled in the room set aside for him.

Part of the unexpected nature of an unpredictable job.

"I'm thrilled. I'm glad he did it. He essentially invented something here that he's taken to Soldier Field in Chicago and who knows where else it's going to go," Cannon said. "We made a great relationship with him, so hopefully he'll come back for an actual concert in the future."

Cannon is on the move again -- using elevators Sunday instead of stairs for expedience's sake. From some of the most expensive seats in the stadium, he goes to the top level. Because for him, that's among the most important areas of the stadium.

Setting expectations

Cannon stares out onto the field from close to the top of the stadium, the Atlanta skyline off to the giant window to his right. It's a strong view, something Cannon stressed the importance of -- making sure every seat is a good one.

Of course, that Cannon is here at all is a bit of an unexpected path.

A college wrestler at Army who became an Airborne Ranger and first lieutenant, he moved into branding and marking post-military, working at The Richards Group before ascending from vice president of marketing of Mercedes-Benz USA to president and CEO.

He loved his job running an iconic brand, walking through facilities meeting everyone he could -- similar to his current walkabouts before every event. Cannon and his family were moving to Atlanta to help Mercedes-Benz's new headquarters. At a dinner with a friend one night, he learned Blank sought a CEO for all of his businesses.

Cannon was intrigued. Run businesses through sports? For a guy who helped found Home Depot? Seeing "a cool nexus challenge," Cannon reached out to the Korn Ferry headhunter the next day and introduced himself. He explained his past even though he had no background in sports.

Six months later, Blank hired him.

"It wasn't about sports, per se, we're not asking him to run the football team or the soccer team or anything of that nature," Blank said. "But he understood the importance of fan satisfaction, whether it be cars or whatever he may be and a standard of excellence, which was really important to us."

That standard of excellence, there's a sense of West Point in how he operates: The brisk walking pace and frustration when he finds freshly accumulated trash on the ground. The three-person staff walking with him -- only there because a reporter is with him, these walks are usually solo -- start cleaning up, too. He lauds the facility's goal of being zero waste.

"When people see me walking around, when I walk by trash that means that it's OK to walk by trash," Cannon said. "But if they see the CEO picking up trash, that means that's the expectation. That's how standards get set and how you go from a pristine-looking environment to a sloppy-looking environment and that change doesn't happen overnight."

As he says this, he arrives at Section 246 and gets briefed on the Values in Action awards he's presenting. He gives another speech and reads the letter written praising three employees and calls them up to be recognized.

"In a world when news is always bad," Cannon tells the employees. "You broke through with a moment of human kindness."

If recognized enough, Cannon's staff will get them on what he's most proud of -- the Heroes of Hospitality wall in Section 107. A permanent installation in the stadium, it's their employee Hall of Fame (a Falcons-based Ring of Honor will debut in the 300 Level). They have quarterly inductions where they invite the employee's family.

"Every time we'd recognize them," Cannon said. "Tears and hugs, pretty cool."

Every contribution matters

Cannon is just getting going. His criss-cross of the stadium stops at his final huddle of the day, this time at the field-level Delta 360 Sky Club. His speech is similar, some of his lines reused. After constant movement, he's not tired.

He's energized -- three cups of coffee in, including a double-latte from Starbucks. Usually, he uses his at-home Miele -- Cannon has great appreciation for German engineering -- to make what he describes as a perfect cup of coffee.

The coffee, though, is not the ultimate source of added energy. In the last speech, the emotion came through. Staffers thanked him as he was thanking them.

"Honestly, that's better than coffee. You kidding me? I'm watching these folks and I realize that matters," Cannon said. "You feel appreciated and who doesn't want to feel appreciated for what they do.

"Who doesn't want to think what they do matters?"

It's a leadership axiom Cannon has lived by for years. Cannon smiles. His gray hair shines under the lights. A bottle of Dasani in his right hand, he offers a fist-bump. It's 5:45 p.m. Gates open soon. Arms swinging at his side, off he goes through the tunnels inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Steve Cannon has got to go. He has two or three more laps to walk.