Not all basketball stars throw down slam dunks or drain three-point jump shots. Many work behind the scenes so that fans can have a good time watching athletes like LeBron James and Steph Curry on the court.
COURTESY THAD SHEELY ’93
One of those is Thad Sheely ’93, chief operating officer of the Atlanta Hawks. Sheely was hired by the NBA team in 2015 to remake the arena in which the Hawks play their home games. Three years later, State Farm Arena was unveiled — just in time for the 2018–19 basketball season.
Sheely, who was an urban studies major, recognized the many advantages of the original arena’s downtown location, including ample parking and a MARTA rail station on site. So he decided to keep the structure and renovate everything inside. His vision: a convenient, affordable, state-of-the-art venue for sports, concerts and other attractions.
“To me the right location for an arena is downtown. But a new arena would have cost $500 million,” says Sheely. Instead, the team spent $200 million “to rebuild from the roofline to the baseline — all the fun stuff, everything the fan touches.”
Sheely says his urban studies background is vital in his work. “Understanding urban design and planning gives you a feel for how these buildings function,” he says. “You are bringing a small town of 17,000–20,000 people together for one night and you want to give them a good experience. The same things that make a city successful make an arena successful. And the connection between a city and an arena is important. We wanted our arena to be tied into the city of Atlanta, the state of Georgia and what makes these places special.”
For example, the Hawks partnered with Zac Brown, vocalist and lead guitarist of the eponymous Atlanta-based band, to create the 20,000-square-foot Zac Brown’s Social Club within the arena. There is also Killer Mike’s Swag Shop, a barber shop where fans can get their hair cut while watching the game.
Sheely, who has an M.B.A. from Stanford, was working on the financing of sports arenas when he decided it might be more fun to be on the other side, “spending the money instead of trying to raise it.” After helping to design an arena for the NBA’s Miami Heat, he joined the NFL’s New York Jets and worked on a proposed Midtown Manhattan stadium that was a central part of the city’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics. After those Olympics were awarded to London, Sheely and the Jets partnered with the New York Giants to build MetLife Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands.
Sheely was working on Hudson Yards, a $20 billion mixed-used development on the same site that had been proposed for the Olympic arena, when the Hawks’ then-new owner, Tony Ressler, recruited him to recreate the team’s arena. Sheely says he enjoys overseeing all aspects of team and arena business operations and real estate development.
“Sports are interesting because they are very small businesses with very large portfolios. We are in the live entertainment business, and it’s as much about the overall social experience as anything.”
Alex Sachare ’71 is a longtime sports journalist and a former editor-in-chief of CCT.