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Falcon Quest

Times Staff Writer

The Atlanta Falcons aspire to be the new America’s Team.

For the better part of their history, they were barely Atlanta’s team.

They once drew 7,792 spectators to Fulton County Stadium, roughly 48,000 short of capacity. They suffered the indignity of losing at home to Oakland and watching Raider quarterback Jeff George -- a former Falcon -- take a victory lap and crow that the place should be renamed the “George Dome.” Then there were all those times the Falcons felt like visitors in their own cheerless, half-empty home.

Welcome to the House of Plain.

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“There was no buzz,” said tackle Bob Whitfield, who has endured nine losing seasons with the Falcons since 1992. “We were playing in front of 25,000 people. Everybody was sleeping in the stadium. I was like, man, just push them all down to the lower level. When you have the people all spaced out it looks horrible. At least tighten them up.”

No need to worry about that now. The Falcons, who had the NFL’s second-worst attendance in 2000 and 2001, have sold all their season tickets for only the second time in franchise history and needed 26 minutes to sell their entire single-game supply of 1,000 tickets per game.

Atlanta had not sold out of season tickets since 1981, the season after winning its first division title.

Fueled by the emergence of quarterback Michael Vick, maybe the league’s most dynamic player, the Falcons increased their home attendance by 27% to 68,871 last season. They overcame a 1-3 start to go 9-6-1, made the playoffs for the first time in four years and became the first visiting team to win a postseason game at Green Bay.

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“A lot of guys are feeling this is a championship team,” Vick said. “We went to the playoffs last year. Now the fans expect nothing less. We have to live up to those expectations.”

Hundreds of fans line the fences that surround the practice fields at Furman College, waiting in the muggy heat to collect autographs and get a glimpse of new receiver Peerless Price and the third-year quarterback whom Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher called “the hardest guy in the league to tackle.”

“I’m enjoying this,” Vick said. “This is what I live for. I’m in the NFL and this is my football team, so I’m excited. If I have to carry this team on my back, I’ll do it.”

But he isn’t alone. Arthur Blank, the Home Depot co-founder who bought the Falcons for $545 million before last season, took a do-it-yourself approach to franchise repair. Even though the team already had the league’s lowest average ticket price, Blank lowered season-ticket prices even more, cutting the cost of 10-game upper-level packages to $100 and $240 from $330 and $370. The $10-a-game seat was the team’s cheapest since 1976.

As a result, the Falcons nearly doubled their season-ticket base last season to 50,000, a 97% improvement from 2001 -- the largest single-year increase in NFL history.

“There should be a lot of fans out there pulling for this guy,” said Max Muhleman, president of IMG/Muhleman Marketing. “The question is, can he make enough total dollars in the long run?”

Blank, whose net worth was an estimated $1.9 billion in 2002, has a successful track record. He helped Home Depot grow from three stores in 1978 to the world’s largest home-improvement retailer with almost 1,500 outlets and a market value in 2002 of more than $113 billion.

His philosophy as owner of the Falcons: Put the fans first.

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He walked the blocks surrounding the Georgia Dome to check out the parking situation, then increased the number of spaces for season-ticket holders from 2,000 to 20,000 within a half-mile of the stadium. He built Falcons Landing, an interactive park adjacent to the Georgia Dome.

This spring, Atlanta unveiled redesigned uniforms and a retooled logo featuring a more aggressive looking Falcon. The team’s jersey sales have increased 600% since a year ago.

Not so long ago, the Falcons were an afterthought. They were 16-32 from 1999 until Blank bought the team before the 2002 season, and their home games were seldom on TV in the Atlanta area. The team was blacked out locally in 18 of 20 games before Blank arrived.

The Falcons now are the hottest ticket in town. While the NHL’s Thrashers and NBA’s Hawks are among the worst draws in their respective leagues, and even the Braves have seen a 25% decrease in attendance since Turner Field opened in 1997, the Falcons have a 3,000-name waiting list for season tickets.

In years past, the only time the Falcons sold out was when they were playing Dallas, Tampa Bay, or another team whose fans made the trek to Atlanta.

“Trust me, when I’d come here with Tampa, this was our place,” said Falcon running back Warrick Dunn, who spent his first five seasons with the Buccaneers. "[But] my first year here last year it was surprising, because people started believing. Arthur came in and changed a lot of things. Things just started turning.”

The changes were superficial and meaningful. The logo and uniforms were redesigned, and the team did a better job of reaching out to the community. There were 250 player appearances -- more than twice as many as any other year -- and the team started giving ball-boy jobs to underprivileged kids, rather than kids who already had a connection to the organization.

In assembling his front office, Blank looked beyond the football world to hire Dick Sullivan to oversee marketing and Susan Bass to run community affairs. Sullivan had a similar job with Home Depot, and Bass was an executive with Limited Brands, which owns Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works.

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“He was looking for people with a fresh perspective,” Bass said of Blank. “He just thinks differently.”

The first blemish of the Blank era came this week when a former employee filed a federal lawsuit against him, alleging she was fired after speaking out against sexual harassment of female staffers.

Carol Faubert, 53, who was vice president of human resources, claimed in the suit filed Monday that Blank condoned a work climate in which female employees were treated as “sex objects.” The lawsuit also alleged that Blank fired Faubert because she had objected to his refusal to hire women with young children and his decision to prohibit certain employees from earning overtime.

In a written statement, the Falcons dismissed the lawsuit as one filed “by a disgruntled former employee whose objective is obvious: to threaten public embarrassment as a means of extracting unwarranted personal gain.”

The lawsuit is unlikely to have any noticeable effect on fan interest. That’s at an all-time high, said Barbara Sanders, president of the Falcon Birdwatchers -- one of the team’s two fan clubs -- and a season-ticket holder for 29 seasons.

She has decorated the entire basement of her Marietta, Ga., home in Falcon memorabilia, from the red-and-black barstool covers, to the framed jerseys, to the roll of toilet paper that’s signed by linebacker Keith Brooking and encased in a Lucite cube.

Sanders loves the fact the dome is filled with Falcon fans now, and she takes pride that she stuck by the team throughout the lean years.

“In the past, when we’d play New Orleans, it seems like there were as many Saints’ fans there as Falcons’ fans,” she said. “And those New Orleans people know how to holler. Our people are still learning.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Fanning Interest

Average attendance for the Atlanta Falcons since moving into the Georgia Dome:

*--* Year Average Year Average 1992 63,283 1998 58,130 1993 57,079 1999 57,615 1994 57,313 2000 52,852 1995 52,388 2001 54,251* 1996 41,955 2002 68,871 1997 48,033 *Michael Vick drafted

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