Monday, February 1, 2010

WrestleMania Comes to Atlanta

Six months ago I was sitting in Papadeaux's in Norcross having lunch with Atlanta Falcons vice president of marketing Jim Smith when he mentioned that he was working with the folks at the Georgia World Congress Center/Georgia Dome and Atlanta Sports Council to help bring WrestleMania to Atlanta.

As the dome's major tenant, the Falcons at times help to bring other events to the facility. In the same lunch, Smith mentioned that he had also assisted in helping to bring two high-profile soccer events to the dome that summer, an exhibition between clubs AC Milan and Club America and another between the Mexican and Venezuelan national teams. As the former general manager of Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew, he knew the futbol product he was trying to sell.

It turns out that he also knew a little something about the WWE. About 15 years ago, Smith, a Connecticut native, worked for the Greenwich, Conn.-based company for parts of two years as director of live marketing, where, as he put it, he promoted shows all around the country.

Successfully landing the bid for WrestleMania for the first time in Atlanta represented the confluence of a number of relationships and events. At Monday's press conference at the Georgia Dome to announce the event, Atlanta Sports Council President Gary Stokan said he knew WWE Senior Vice President of Special Events John Saboor from Saboor's days as president of Central Florida Sports Commission -- essentially, Stokan's counterpart in Orlando. Stokan said Saboor gave him the heads-up to bid on the event and the sports council pulled in all the necessary players.

That dynamic was on display on Monday. It's not often that you see political dignitaries like Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Commissioner of Economic Development Ken Stewart standing side by side with the likes of WWE Chairman Vince McMahon and "Superstars" -- as the WWE refers to them -- John Cena, Big Show, Batista and Edge.

But they all played their parts -- wrestlers and politicians. Stokan credited Reed, from his time as a state senator, for helping to change the Georgia state flag and remove the Confederate War Emblem. Stokan noted that Atlanta would lose high-profile events like the NCAA Final Four men's basketball tournament if the state flag still bore the emblem. (The NCAA has a ban on holding events in states that fly the symbol, which has hurt South Carolina, Georgia's neighbor to the north.) He said he and Saboor negotiated the terms of the deal on the back of a napkin at Dantanna's and that the Atlanta team made a strong pitch at WWE headquarters in Connecticut.

"I think the Falcons, as [team president Rich McKay] said during the press conference, we want to be a part of the major events here in Atlanta," the Falcons' Smith said. "This is a major event and one we wanted to be a part of. It’s being played here and we think we can a bring a lot to the table to add to the excitement and the WrestleMania week, not just the event."

Smith, a marketer himself, praised the WWE's marketing skills. Perhaps Cena put it best when he referred to McMahon, who built the now publicly traded company with a market capitalization of $1.19 billion, as "an insane genius."

"When you listen to the press conference, they live this," Smith said. "This is their life. They don’t do anything else and they love it. You can see it in every interview and every discussion that it wasn’t staged. That’s a real passion for what they’re doing. That’s why they’re so successful.”

Stokan said sports events have brought $1.8 billion in economic development to Georgia since 1999, resulting in $73 million in direct government revenue (read: taxes). For his part, Reed said the event would bring $50 million in economic impact to Atlanta and said he planned on attending.

Then McMahon and the wrestlers took turns hyping the event. Edge described WrestleMania as "a shot of adrenaline directly to your heart."Batista described it as a "vibe -- electricity."

McKay, escorted out by WWE divas Eve and Kelly Kelly, quipped that a schedule conflict prevented Falcons Owner Arthur Blank from attending the event and that "thank God he wasn't able to make it." On a serious side, he noted how the event would help to give back to the community through WWE's relationship with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

So, as Reed put it, get ready for a 13-month march to Atlanta when WrestleMania arrives on April 3, 2011.

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Note: The lunch I described with Smith was the beginning of a process that resulted in my becoming a paid free-lance reporter/blogger for for the 2009 NFL season.

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