FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It is only 14 years old and has played host to two Super Bowl games, the Olympics and multiple NCAA Final Fours, but in the estimation of Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, the Georgia Dome is a facility fast becoming obsolete.
That's especially true in a league where owners have relied increasingly on stadium-generated revenues to fund fat free agent contracts and to maintain competitive balance.
And so Blank, who first addressed his concerns about the Georgia Dome with an Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist earlier this week, elaborated further with ESPN.com on Thursday, and confirmed that he feels a new venue is ultimately necessary for him to keep pace with his NFL brethren.
"We've got to have (a new stadium) to be able to compete," Blank said as he observed his team's first practice of training camp. "Under the current situation, we'll just keep spinning around in the third or fourth quartile (in terms of revenues), because of the limits of the lease. To get into that top quartile of teams in the league, up there with (franchises such as) Washington, New England, Jerry Jones in Dallas, it's going to take a new facility."
When he purchased the Falcons in 2002, Blank inherited the lease arrangement negotiated by the Smith family, which formerly owned the team. That lease on the Georgia Dome, which is owned by the state and principally managed by the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC), essentially allows the Falcons to share in the facility's profits. At the time it was negotiated, it offered the franchise an opportunity to be profitable, which was not always the case when the Falcons played at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. But the lease, especially over the last few years with the explosion in new stadiums around the NFL and the revenues they have meant to teams, is now outdated.
"We've got to have (a new stadium) to be able to compete. Under the current situation, we'll just keep spinning around in the third or fourth quartile (in terms of revenues), because of the limits of the lease. To get into that top quartile of teams in the league, up there with (franchises such as) Washington, New England, Jerry Jones in Dallas, it's going to take a new facility."
Arthur Blank, Falcons owner
The state does now permit the Falcons to manage and market the private suites and club seats, something the Georgia World Congress Center did in the past, but that still is not sufficient difference to move the team up the league's revenue chain.
Blank has invested heavily in player resources -- the contract extension to which he signed quarterback Michael Vick two years ago was a landmark deal, and the Falcons awarded defensive end John Abraham a six-year, $45 million contract after acquiring him in a trade this spring -- and emphasized he will continue to do so.
"That's our commitment to this team and it always will be," Blank said. "We don't scrimp on players."
To realize more return on his investment, though, Blank said a new facility is the best option. He would not, he said, attempt to move the team to the suburbs, and actually prefers that a new stadium be built near the current Georgia Dome site in downtown Atlanta. The area has made great progress in recent years in attracting visitors with venues such as Centennial Olympic Park, Philips Arena, and the new Georgia Aquarium, the brainchild of Blank's old Home Depot co-founder, Bernie Marcus.
The Falcons' lease at the Georgia Dome is tied to retirement of the bonds issued to fund it. And so the date is not a hard one. Original projections has the bonds being retired around 2011. But the state refinanced some elements of the Georgia Dome, and some estimate the bonds won't be retired until 2020. Blank said he feels a more realistic date is around 2015.
Blank said there has been considerable dialogue with state and GWCC officials about a new facility. He will not make any grandstand plays, like threatening to relocate the franchise, and reiterated the Falcons are committed to playing in the Georgia Dome for the term of the lease.
He also noted that he will maintain his pledge to fund the improvements projected for the building. When the city of Atlanta recently bid for two Super Bowl games, the costs for the upgrades were projected to be about $150 million. Even though Atlanta failed to land the championship games, Blank said the upgrades will move forward, and there could be an announcement as early as next week about them.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.