ATLANTA -- At the 2014 NCAA Final Four at Jerryworld, AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, there was a section of seats that were so far away from the basketball being played that I'm not sure they should have counted as actual attendees. AT&T Stadium is massive, of course -- too massive to watch a basketball game -- but it is also important for Jerry Jones and everyone involved with Jerryworld that you know that it's massive. Everything is designed to be huge and remind you of its hugeness: That the place is so intimidating, that there are so many people who can fit inside it, is its signature selling feature. You are supposed to feel insignificant there. Its ability to make you feel so insignificant is the primary reason it is considered so impressive.
What's amazing, then, about Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, which hosted its first regular season professional game Sunday -- an MLS matchup between Atlanta United and FC Dallas -- is that is nearly as mammoth as AT&T Stadium, and a similar technological marvel. But it doesn't feel that way. It is oddly intimate, almost cozy, or as cozy as a building that covers two million square feet of space and cost $1.5 billion to build could possibly be. It feels like you are close, even when you are not. And perhaps most impressive: Unlike Jerryworld, you're not rendered minute and pointless by going to a game there. You feel like you're sitting right along 70,000 close friends, like one of those magical buildings in "Harry Potter" where you open the door to a shed and a mansion is inside. Get you a stadium that can do both.
To be fair, it's a little easier to feel intimate at an Atlanta United game than at an NFL game, and not just because they rope off the top 300 level for soccer games. (Though if they'd wanted to, they could have sold most of these seats Sunday for Atlanta United's 3-0 win.) Atlanta United has become one of the more popular teams in MLS, essentially instantaneously in their expansion season, and much of that was forged during their games at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium, where they played while Mercedes-Benz Stadium was completed. That little sojourn -- playing in an old stadium not equipped for soccer but with a perfect downtown vista and a handy ability to hold sound -- primed the pump for the big move, which made Sunday feel just right: all the dedication and anticipation that comes with a winning team with an already fiery fanbase, and a concourse you can walk around in and concession and beer lines that aren't punishingly long. Like so much else with this Atlanta United team, the experience Sunday was something that was brand new and still felt like it had been around forever. Bobby Dodd had a scrappy, DIY feel, and there's nothing DIY about this new building, but the feeling nonetheless has carried over, at least for now.
But the place feels comfortable and lived in already, and that's not something that comes just from one team. There are a few snags here or there: There were reports of the Atlanta United's official app -- which encourages fans to manage their ticket through its own interface -- crashing right before gametime, and many fans having trouble getting their tickets scanned. But those are just first-night jitters. (And ones they'll want to make sure are fixed by the time they break the Falcons seal next Sunday night against the Packers.) It's the type of building that feels both familiar and new. It shares some superficial similarities to University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. -- an underrated stadium -- but it improves on them, mostly by virtue of being in an actual downtown setting. Glendale is an hour's drive away from the city; people only are in Glendale if they're going to a game. But Mercedes-Benz Stadium is smack in the middle of Atlanta, and its open concourse overlooks downtown: You feel like you're in a city center even though you're in a vast indoor stadium, which is something one would think impossible.
It is the rare indoor stadium, in fact, that sort of makes you feel like you're outside. (This is another reason the much-discussed roof issues seem sort of irrelevant; the place feels airy and open even when the roof is closed, though it will be open for Sunday's Falcons game, weather permitting.) This is helped considerably by outdoor concourses, particularly the one with the already-famous metal falcon statue, that sort of double as common meeting place areas on their own, with full bars, bountiful food options and all sorts of seating, allowing for a place to congregate outside the context of the game itself. (Though they should probably get some TVs out there.) If it's possible for a $1.5 billion stadium to feel like part of the neighborhood, this is as close as it can get.
At this point, we must include the obligatory note that $600 million of the funding for Mercedes-Benz Stadium came from public funds -- mostly bonds, but also tax breaks -- and that an overwhelming majority of economists argue that spending taxpayers' money on stadiums for billionaire sports owners is almost always a terrible civic bet. Probably worth noting!
You do feel a little bad for the poor Georgia Dome, sitting next door, abandoned and forgotten, a breakthrough-turned-eyesore that no one has gotten around to tearing down yet. The new stadium makes the Dome look much older than its 25 years. The new place has brought over the Dome's wall of high school football helmets, honoring every high school football team in the state of Georgia -- a concept one can't help but wonder how it will age as the years go by -- but otherwise there are very few reminders of the old place. Other than if you look out the wrong window.
It's the sort of stadium that's fun to walk around and experience outside the game concept but still never forgets that the game is the central focus. It even has the least obtrusive yet still essential jumbotron I've ever seen, with the circular ribbon boards that surround the stadium but do not overwhelm it. The place feels spankingly new -- the only thing that felt dated about it were the ads for Equifax everywhere -- but not so precious that no one has taken the cover off the couch. It's a place you want to dig into and make yours, as quickly as you can. Arthur Blank and the Falcons and Atlanta United did not need a new stadium, and the city of Atlanta -- represented by a beaming Mayor Kasim Reed, who came out Sunday to begin the game; suffice it to say, he didn't make the trip to SunTrust Park for its opening -- did not need to give them a bunch of money to build it. But now that it's here, it is undeniably a fantastic gameday experience. (You even can refill your own sodas for free.) We'll see how well it ages, or, considering this is Atlanta, how long it's even allowed to age. But from the get-go, it's one of the most impressive new stadiums I've seen a long time. You should get there as soon as you can.
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