ATLANTA – Arthur Blank is entering his 20th season as owner of the Atlanta Falcons. He has seen highs and lows, reached a Super Bowl and, recently, endured years of futility.
Blank sat down with ESPN recently to discuss the past two decades, the next decade and more -- including issues surrounding the league and the affect COVID-19 had on the Falcons and the NFL.
(Answers are part of a longer conversation and have been edited for length and clarity)
Q: Coming up on 20 years owning the team. Is this what you envisioned? Hoped?
Blank: “Yes, it’s pretty much what I envisioned. You know, one of the things that I have learned is the losses are worse than the wins are good so they don’t equally balance out. But I also understand the league is built for parity. The league is designed that way, every team has great athletes, every team has great coaches. You’re trying to find ways as an owner ... you do it hopefully through better coaches, better personnel department, better facilities, you spend every dime you can, that you’re permitted to spend, on getting the best players, make good player evaluations so that you’re investing in the right assets, your players. So you do all those things. And then my view, which hasn’t changed in 20 years, is that we want to have a team that at the start, this time of year when people are writing is that you say, ‘Well, the Falcons have a competitive team this year. Somewhere in the top third, top quarter of the teams in the league and you’re probably going to see their name throughout the year and going to see their name come the playoffs.’
“We haven’t had that, haven’t reached that standard the last three years and that’s really disappointing to me and disappointing to our fan base. And so, I’ve made the changes that fans would expect me to make to put us in the best possible light and best position to do that.”
Q: Are those changes immediate, or are you comfortable that being a longer-term thing?
Blank: “I think there are things that will take some time and things that you can do immediately, and I think that this coaching staff is experienced but they are also very smart, and I think that the head coach is right at the top of that. So I do think that you can have scheme changes and put players in better positions and create mismatches. You can understand really where your deficiencies are and be more committed and more dedicated to making changes so you perform differently. Like in our running game is an example. Coach (Arthur) Smith is going to run the ball no matter what it takes. That’s his background, not only as an offensive lineman but the way he’s coached in the past, he’s had great success in Tennessee. When he gets into the red zone, scoring to him is not kicking field goals, 75% of the time they’ve scored touchdowns, which is an incredible percentage, top of the league the last three years or so.
“So, you know, I think you can see those kind of changes and I think that can produce more because of the edges, the wins and losses, a quarter of the games come down to three points or less so some of these games are decided in the last drive of the game and I think we have a great quarterback in Matty Ice. Matty Ice is a good name for him because I think he’s used to winning at the end and he can win at the end. He’s not scared, it’s not too big for him. He doesn’t get flustered. But I think the complement of having a running attack that will be more effective this year and more dedicated to, is it going to match Derrick Henry in Tennessee? Probably not, but Derrick Henry is a unique player.
“But I do think the commitment to running and what it means to the offense and to the defense and controlling the game, controlling the clock, controlling a lot of things changes dramatically. So long answer to your question is that, yeah, I think we’ll certainly be a better team than we were last year and hopefully you’ll see that on the record.”
Q: Following those lines, what do you see for yourself and this team in the next decade?
Blank: “Well, I see us only getting better and my commitment, which has really never changed, is that this is single-game elimination so being able to get in the playoffs, that’s blessing one, you have to earn it, you have to get there. To get all the way through to the Super Bowl, you have to have a combination of real talent and some degree of luck, I think, because you can be eliminated for any number of reasons during a game. Better teams lose games sometimes. It happens. So I want to see us be a competitive team, a team that people like yourself are writing about in a favorable way, not because you’re doing us any favors but because what you see is positive and you see us making the investments in appropriate areas we should to produce a winning team. The more often we get into the playoffs, the greater chance we have to continue to move up and have an opportunity to get back and play in a Super Bowl and that’s really what my goal is. To win championship rings for the city of Atlanta.”
Q: What is the biggest issue facing the league now -- aside from the obvious with COVID-19?
Blank: “I think that continuing to position the game where it’s distributed and viewed by a younger fan base today. I have six kids so I’m a bit of an expert in this. Kids are consuming product today, content, very differently than I did years ago and probably still do today. They are watching it on this and this and this and this and watching three things all at the same time and absorbing all at the same time, maybe superficially but they are absorbing it all at the same time. So I think that the league has to continue to expand the breadth of its population in terms of who is actually going to games. Making sure that the in-game experience still is unique and creates an attractive environment versus sitting at home and watching it on your own 6-foot TV or whatever it may be and have your own hot dog and own beer, etc. That’s why our food-and-beverage pricing are very important because people feel like ‘Am I paying what I’m paying if I went out to the local McDonald’s or one of these fast-food places to get something to eat or even a good restaurant?’ Not that they are bad restaurants, but it’s a different offering. I think that those are all factors, how do you make the in-game experience still unique and special where people want to come together.
“On the other hand, the content has to be presented at home in a way that’s done attractively and our media partners are all leading-edge production companies so I think we’re doing that, but you have to continue to attract a younger fan base. Because by and large the NFL fan base tends to be a little more of an aged side than on the younger side and I think the younger fan just consumes product differently.”
Q: There were losses last year financially due to COVID and the cap showed that. How do you all plan on trying to make that up? Have there been discussions within the league or franchise on what to do?
Blank: “I think, you know, within the franchise and I would say this. If anybody came to me and said, ‘I’m thinking of buying an NFL team. I wanted to get some advice.’ I would say one of the things is that you’re going to be tested in terms of your financial capacity and not just financial capacity at the moment to buy the team but do you have staying power. Like if something happens, God forbid another COVID or something like this, whatever it may be, your plans to improve the stadium or have a new stadium or change tickets, anything can go wrong or go south or be delayed. So your ability to sustain that and continue to operate with your values first and what you want to build in the future first is really important, so we did that last year. It was part of what was expected. It came in a different form than was ever expected, but it had a major impact on each individual franchise and obviously on the league in total.
“On the other hand, going forward, the league has signed these new media contracts, which as you well know, are at historical levels and that’s going to provide a base, again, for us to go forward and increase our salary cap, which will go up dramatically again next year. So this has been kind of a one-year wonder in terms of the cap.
“I actually think, in some ways, for us, it worked, it’s worked well. It fit our transition, I would say this. I think there were a number of players that we signed as free agents that signed for only one-year contracts and ordinarily, you look at the quality of the player and say ‘that player is not signing a one-year. They want three years. They want four years.’ But a lot of players were caught in that one-year kind of transition this year between a cap that was severely depressed because of what happened last year and the knowledge of we feel strongly about fuller stadiums this year, if not full stadiums, but the media contracts going forward.
“So a lot of players said, and I think our personnel department did an excellent job, and our coach as well, of going through that process and selecting players that aren’t Day 1, Day 2 free agent players but are Day 3, 4, 5 free agent players and they have a lot of playability left. That’ll fit us well this year. And some of these young men will move on but some will stay with us because we’ll see they fit well in the scheme, the coach will love them, and we’ll sign them to a longer-term contract.”
Q: You mention the cap, which you think is going to go back up astronomically next year, how do you manage that as an owner? Are you happy seeing it happen?
Blank: “Very happy to see it happen and our players are as well because this is a partnership between the NFL, the franchises, the clubs individually and collectively and the players. The cap goes up 10%, 7%, 5%, 10$$% percent over time and the players are going to get approximately half of that. So it’s, what’s the expression, it’s a win for everybody and that’s ideal. And also it’s a win for our fans because at the end of the day we want to keep players on these franchises as long as we can and continue to build winning teams, competitive teams.”