Hear from one of the senior leaders behind the Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta United FC, and Mercedes-Benz Stadium about what it takes to build a premium venue with year-round cachet.
As Vice Chairman of Arthur M. Blank Sports & Entertainment and a father of nine, Steve Cannon typically has a ton on his plate.
Running the day-to-day operations of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta United of Major League Soccer, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and the PGA Tour Superstore for nearly eight years has demanded constant innovation, a vital trait he honed during a nine-year tenure as CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA. At AMBSE, Cannon led the opening of the flagship Atlanta stadium that holds more than 300 events a year, hosted Super Bowl LIII in 2019, and will be a host venue for several matches at the FIFA World Cup in 2026.
He also oversaw the 2017 of the MLS club, which showcased booming attendance from day one before quickly winning an MLS Cup title in 2018, helping to drive the league’s franchise valuations higher and paving the way for further southeast soccer expansion to Nashville and Charlotte.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a $1.6 billion retractable roof venue, almost didn’t open for business in time for the start of the Falcons’ own 2017 season. Thousands of construction workers were split into different teams on eight-hour shifts during the last year of the build to ensure that progress could be made 24/7. Cannon oversaw the relocation of Mercedes‘ American headquarters from New Jersey to Atlanta, making him well-equipped to handle the oversight of one of the country’s largest sports and entertainment hubs.
But the challenges were far from over once the construction phase was complete — Cannon had to hire and train 4,000 employees across guest services, ticketing, security, and food and beverage, overseeing a multi-day program called “Welcome Home” meant to teach the AMBSE’s expectations for culture and hospitality. At stadium construction was still in its latter stages, Atlanta United played its first match in February of 2017 away from its intended home.
“I remember that meeting I had with other teams said where we said, ‘guys, sorry, this thing is not going to be ready,’” Cannon, who learned about the intricacies of the soccer landscape on the job, told Boardroom.
Cannon had to pivot and host games for the first six months at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium. Fans were cultivated from the most grassroots levels, with employees and executives courting supporters at local soccer bars and pubs who were already connected to the region’s lower-division clubs and their favorite national teams. Cannon said the alternative Bobby Dodd plan, officially called Project Lemonade, ultimately went so well that fans were actually nervous about re-creating the home game experience and atmosphere at Mercedes-Benz.
AMBSE owner Arthur Blank brought in experienced CEO Darren Eales, now in the same role at Premier League club Newcastle United, three years early to nail every aspect of building a soccer team from scratch. And with Mercedes-Benz as their fortress, Atlanta United has led MLS in average attendance in every year of its existence, with more than 46,000 fans attending matches in 2023 — a number that would have ranked No. 8 in the Premier League last season.
“One of the things we’re all the most proud of is when somebody from Sports Illustrated said it might be the best sports franchise launch in history,” Cannon said. “It almost recalibrated other soccer team owners’ expectations for how many fans you could deliver. When we showed everybody that you could do it, all of a sudden people started changing their thinking on how big of a stadium should I go? Should I go with 20,000-person soccer for stadium or 30,000? Now, we’re seeing more of the larger variety.”
Of course, even once a franchise is off the ground or a stadium is built, the job is far from complete.
“Good leaders always keep stress in the system,” Cannon said. “So, the minute we feel like we’re in a steady state, you stop growing.”
The stadium has to produce revenue to be profitable and maintain operations by hosting not just NFL and MLS events, but college football games like the SEC Championship and the Peach Bowl, offseason tour soccer matches, concerts, and private corporate events like off-sites, dinners, and fundraisers. He divided that into about 50 sold-out events a year and 300 smaller events to keep doors open year-round, all while maintaining staffing to handle that kind of volume at an elite level.
In this way, Cannon said Mercedes-Benz Stadium is now part factory, part laboratory — call it MBS Labs.
This innovative spirit propelled Cannon to lead the charge in making Mercedes-Benz Stadium the world’s largest cashless venue of its size starting in early 2019. Conveniently enough, this was barely a year before the COVID-19 pandemic exposed cash transactions at live events as antiquated. MBS hosted the first fully cashless Super Bowl that year, including paperless entry, and proceeded to field inquiries from pro and college teams from around the world on how to incorporate the cashless approach into their own venues, moving the business of global sports forward.
Cannon estimated that evolving past cash and the need to make change reduced each concessions transaction by 45 seconds, vastly improving customer experience and efficiency and eliminating the need for significant on-hand cash, a secure cash room, and the calculation of cash balances. Taken together, he said it all saves AMBSE at least $500,000 per year.
Earlier this year, the stadium became the world’s first in pro sports to earn TRUE platinum certification as a zero waste venue, with plans to eventually become zero emission. Cannon said the company uses a playbook that it has and will continue sharing with other sports organizations to make a greater environmental difference beyond MBS’ 2 million square feet.
“If every stadium, arena, and ballpark in the country was zero waste, think about the amount of impact that would have,” he said.
That sophisticated approach continues in time for the start of the NFL season, which began in Atlanta on Sunday, Sept. 10 against the Carolina Panthers. The Falcons became one of two NFL teams to use facial-recognition technology and touchless entry into the stadium and its premium clubs for fans that opt in, reducing overall wait times. These Delta Fly-Through Lanes are found at three locations on game day, improving the experience for thousands of football fans.
A touchless concessions retailer from Amazon called the Checkout-Free Market will come soon, per the stadium’s official website. Cannon noted experiments with this approach last season that are nearing a full roll-out.
“The way I look at it is it’s R&D,” Cannon said. “I’m not sure if this grab-and-go, frictionless thing is going to be scalable. It’s a novelty when it’s one concession. The question is, can you make it for every day and then suddenly reduce your labor, right? The challenge is in this sort of tight labor market is can you find hourly workers that you need to man all this stuff. We’ve been fighting those challenges for the last two years when you’ve got 4,000 associates and then all of a sudden you get an 80% show rate, you’re now having to deliver that experience with 80% of what you’re planning.”
The MBS Lab also produced the instantly viral “Benzie,” a robot security dog that will work around the stadium in 30-minute shifts. While it’s currently very much a novelty, it shows the lengths Cannon and his team will go to rethink what’s possible at the most forward-thinking venue in the southeastern US.
AMBSE has additionally opened a digital content production facility at the Falcons’ training facility called Ticketmaster Studios and has plans to create a similar operation for Atlanta United so that team-centric content can be created year-round to help the biggest fans connect with the ownership group’s brands.
Looking ahead, Cannon hopes Atlanta will be granted as many as eight World Cup matches in 2026, including a coveted semifinal match. After hosting a Super Bowl and a men’s basketball Final Four, he said MBSE’s hand is raised for another Super Bowl as the stadium pushes ever-harder to position itself at the center of the world’s premier events.
Unsurprisingly, such ambition means that the biggest current challenges Cannon faces on the job nearly eight years into this adventure center around meeting and exceeding fan expectations.
“Our competition is not the Hawks or the Braves — it’s the sofa and the 80-inch flatscreen TV and the amazing, immersive experience that you can have at home. So, if we don’t create an incredible experience in our stadium and our venue,” he said, “how are we going to get people to buy a season ticket to come downtown to pay for parking? That’s a huge commitment, and it’s what drives us to constantly innovate on the fan experience side.”
That imperative extends to the Falcons season ticket experience as well. A frictionless secondary market allows fans to transfer tickets with a simple swipe as part of the franchise’s goal to cater to younger generations fully acquainted with Uber, Airbnb, and temporary ownership, a modern alternative to the traditional season ticket. Offering this freedom without undermining the age-old season ticket dynamic, however, is what Cannon said keeps him up at night.
The solution to date is adding value for the consumer. For example, season ticket holders who can’t attend a given game can sell directly back to the Falcons at face value, who will then sell it themselves through a dedicated ticket exchange rather than forcing fans to sweat it out while searching for a taker on the secondary market. In turn, fans can use what they earn toward next year’s season ticket. The Falcons also offer an away game deal by which season ticket holders can identify two away games they want to attend with priority access through the team’s ticket exchange to add further value to their annual package.
In addition to hoping for a successful Falcons season in 2023, Cannon wants AMBSE to continue delivering one of the top fan experiences in sports all year long. From a zero net waste model to wait-free stadium entry to Benzie the robot dog — as well as a large capital project to invest in more premium and club space as part of what the organization is calling MBS 2.0 — the ultimate goal is for there to be truly no offseason at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“The minute we’re finished with 2.0, we’re going to start thinking about 3.0, because we live in a pace of change where we either meet that expectation or we don’t,” Cannon said. “We live in a world of ever-increasing expectations. Your next innovation cycle is only ever a few months away, and if our cycles don’t keep up with the expectation cycles of consumers, they lose a little faith in you.”
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