Since becoming a fan in 1996 as a six-year-old, Atlanta Falcons football has been my life. I’ve watched it, read about it and now I have the pleasure to write about it, as I cover the team for The Falcoholic. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Falcons owner Arthur Blank and ask him an array of questions. Some were specific to the current state of the franchise, which you can read here.
As a fan and as someone who covers the team, there’s a list of questions that I always hoped I’d someday be able to ask the man in charge. Now, I wasn’t able to get to all of my questions, but I got to the ones that I found most interesting about Blank himself, franchise history and the Falcons in general.
Atlanta Falcons ‘Ring of Honor’
In 2004, the Falcons organization started the Ring of Honor. Since they don’t officially retire jersey numbers like some professional teams do, the Ring of Honor is meant to honor certain players throughout Falcons history that made a meaningful impact to the team and to the fans. So far, members of this prestigious group include: William Andrews, Steve Bartkowski, Tommy Nobis, Jessie Tuggle, Jeff Van Note, Mike Kenn, Claude Humphrey, Deion Sanders, Gerald Riggs, Warrick Dunn and Roddy White. I can think of some very deserving former Falcons players who deserve to join that immortal club (Matt Bryant and Todd McClure come to mind) and I’m sure you can too. The last induction class was in 2019 with Roddy White, so naturally, I was curious if we can expect any inductions in the near future.
“Periodically, we’ll ask our fans — and we’ll do that again,” Arthur Blank told The Falcoholic. “Kinda get some guidance from them, look back at the history of the franchise, you know, 66 years now. See if there’s somebody that’s really worthy, that our fans feel strongly about and go from there. But we don’t have any immediate plans right now. When we do pick somebody we try to make it a surprise, so if I knew who it was I wouldn’t tell you, Evan. Not because I don’t like you, but we want to surprise the recipient.”
Being on the sidelines in the 4th quarter
One of my favorite things that Arthur Blank does is his practice in the fourth quarter of Falcons’ games, when he goes down to the sidelines and observes during crunch time. It’s something that he does to not only show support for the players and staff, but also because he truly cares about being present for the good times and the bad. Some fans try to label this a “jinx” — but I think that couldn’t be further from the truth. Blank has been standing on the sidelines for years, during both great moments and bad ones.
“It goes back to my days at The Home Depot where I probably spent the early days of the company, probably half the time with an orange apron on walking the floors of our stores, talking to our customers and our associates,” Blank said “It carries on now when I’m out of the office, I try to be in all of our businesses with the people that we’re closest to. So, I really feel like whether it’s players for Atlanta United or players for the Falcons or our associates at the ranch, our guests at the ranch or our customers at the PGA stores — I always want the associates to feel and know that I’m always with them, but shoulder-to-shoulder with them. I’ve generally found over the years also that I’ve learned more about our businesses, probably including football, by being as close to where the action is as I can be. You have to be a little tricky with the Atlanta Falcons, you know I don’t want to be in the middle of the game, I don’t want to be talking to the coaches or the players during the middle of the fourth quarter. So, usually between 8-9 minutes, somewhere in that area, I’ll walk down to the field. I stay between the goal line and the 35-yard line, with no coaches and no players — where I just kinda observe. I think it’s important for the players to know I’m there, whether we’re winning or losing and hopefully it’s more wins than losses, but they know that I’m side-by-side with them. I’m not removed, etc. So, that’s the reason I go to training camp, it’s the reason I do walks around the stadium, it’s the reason I do walks in our PGA business — I always want our associates to know I’m there with them, and I learn a lot. At the end of a football game, I’m not learning a whole lot other than what I’m seeing on the field, but reality is that I want the players to know that their owner is side-by-side with them. Sharing those emotions and all of the drama that usually goes into the final quarter of an NFL game.”
Navigating through a pandemic
2020 was hard. I don’t need to tell you all that. We somehow were able to have professional sports, even though at times that looked like a pipe dream. Stadiums were empty, player exchanges very-limited, constant COVID-19 testing. The NFL along with some other professional sports leagues navigated it brilliantly.
“It was very, very hard,” Blank said. “It was hard for our soccer team, incredibly hard for our football team. Really only by the grace of God, by following tight protocols and having great leadership by our commissioner [Roger] Goodell and other people at the league level and at the club level, and Rich McKay and our players — we ended up playing 256 games, all of our games — that was really a miracle. When you’re playing the game, if you’re sitting in the stands, you can hear the players talking. From the sidelines, you could hear everything they were saying. I think for the players it was very different, I would say weird, because they probably haven’t played that way since they were playing in grade school and even then in grade school, they probably had parents there, friends there, neighbors there and whoever may be. So, it was very, very odd. I do give the NFL a lot of credit though, and each club and our club for getting the games in. It took a lot of discipline to follow all of the protocols and do all of the testing, stay out of harms way and what have you. We’re transitioning back obviously this year, and our soccer team will have close to 50% of their fans to kick off the season. In the Fall our hope is we’ll be playing in close to full stadiums. We may have some transition, we’ll see where we are with the vaccines and what have you. But I think the country is making a lot of progress — little more work to do and we’re not done — but we’re making good progress, I think.”
The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation
Outside of sports, Blank has put his time and funds toward a variety of great causes. The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation has been promoting positive change and supporting meaningful programs in and outside of the Atlanta area. Formed in 1995, the Blank Foundation has invested more than $800 million in early childhood development, education, green space, community transformation, and the arts, and leads giving programs for each of the Blank Family of Businesses, including the Falcons, Atlanta United, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, PGA TOUR Superstore, Mountain Sky Guest Ranch, West Creek Ranch and Paradise Valley Ranch.
Some recent and notable donations have happened recently such as in October of last year, the foundation donated $200 million to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. In February of this year, the foundation announced a $17 million grant to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, of which Blank donated an additional $300,000 and the personal proceeds from his memoir Good Company to. These are just a few of Blank’s philanthropic actions, and he says you can expect more.
“95% or more of my estate will end up in the [Arthur M. Blank] Family Foundation. It’s just a matter of when that’s going to happen,” Blank said. “I’ve been blessed and been very fortunate with all of our business. I’ve been blessed in life in a lot of ways, with six great children, and grandchildren and what have you. But you know, I feel like my passion now is to continue to give back in the ways that I can, to make a difference in peoples lives in any ways that I can. We have a wonderful foundation with great leadership, our new president Fay Twersky. So, we’ll continue to invest very heavily in area that makes sense to us as we go forward. I think whatever granting we’ve done in the past, I think it will be substantially higher in the future. Put on your seat belt and enjoy, if you have any good ideas or if anybody does, always send them into us. We’re always interested in ideas. We’re looking at a lot of different things. I’m blessed also having my children, all six of them, involved in our foundation. The three older ones are all trustees and board members rather, and the younger ones are becoming. So, it’s great working with my family in that regard as well.”
His relationship with Rich McKay
Although he’s been with the team for quite some time, Falcons’ President, CEO Rich McKay has a long history in the NFL. His father, the late John McKay, was the first head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Rich McKay served as the general manager for the Buccaneers from 1994 to 2003, overseeing the team’s first Super Bowl win following the 2002 season. From 2003-2008, McKay served as the Falcons’ general manager before being promoted to President, CEO in 2008 where he has remained since. Needless to say, McKay has been by Blank’s side through most of his ownership of the Falcons.
“Well, Rich [McKay] has worked with me for 17 years now, a long time,” Blank said. “It was interesting when I first bought the club, to make a transition in terms of a general manager, I spoke to then commissioner [Paul] Tagliabue and other people I respected around the league. They said in their opinion, the best general manager in the NFL is Rich McKay — problem is, he’s employed, working with Tampa Bay. So, we were fortunate after they won the Super Bowl with coach [Jon] Gruden, Rich for a variety of reasons decided he was going to make a change. So, with the support from the Glazer family who owns the Tampa Bay team and is such a wonderful family that is connected to the NFL and involved in a lot of great causes as well, they said ‘If you want to talk to Rich, you can talk to Rich. That’s fine with us.’ So, I chatted with him, went down to visit with him. We were able to make the hire, and he’s been a great believer and understander of our culture. He lives our culture. Everybody loves working with him.”
“He’s chair of the competition committee, he’s been on the competition committee for probably 27 years, which is the committee that makes the rules for the NFL as you know, Evan. He’s probably chaired it for 24 years, something like that. So, he’s very knowledgeable on football and he understands the game, and the history of the game. He understands what Good Company is about. To the hiring process, he’s invaluable because he knows me, he knows our minds, he knows what we’re looking for, he knows Atlanta, and he knows football. So, I could not be more thankful to have him on our team than I do. I’m very blessed having Rich — and his whole family for that matter, he’s got a wonderful wife and two great boys as well. He’s been an integral part of the success we’ve had since I acquired the team. I’m looking forward to working with him for many years to come.”
I know some fans have been critical of Blank during his ownership, especially as the team’s fortunes have flagged, and I’m not here to try and change their minds. Looking around the league, having an owner who cares and who ultimately wants to create a sustainable winning culture and provide a competitive team for Falcons fans to cheer for every season is worth an awful lot.