Gary Stokan, the President and CEO of Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, can see the college football season slipping away and taking with it his three-headed football colossus scheduled for September 5-12. Three games involving Power 5 schools—West Virginia vs. Florida State, Georgia vs. Virginia, Auburn vs. North Carolina— in the seven-day stretch are worth millions of dollars in economic impact. It is a singular event in the history of the college game and Stokan doesn’t want it to get away from his constituents up and down Marietta Street, the bars, restaurants, and hotels that are fueled by football.
So when the Big Ten declared it would play only conference games in an effort to string out the season to weather coronavirus outbreaks, Stokan could see the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southeastern Conference, and Big 12 Conference inching toward conference-only games. If they played conference-only games, their next choice would be to play rivalry games, then, perhaps the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Series.
To save the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Series, the relentless Stokan proposed to the three leagues that West Virginia (Big 12) play Virginia (ACC) on September 5, or 7, and North Carolina play Auburn on Sept. 12, as scheduled. Georgia would be out of the mix because its ninth game would be with Georgia Tech and Florida State would be out of the Kickoff because it would play Florida. Virginia, North Carolina, and Auburn have rivalry games already within conference.
A long-shot? Sure, but so is the season given the pessimistic outlook of conference commissioners and athletic directors.
Stokan said the Big 12 told him they would consider it. He has not heard back from the ACC and SEC.
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The two non-conference Power 5 games in Atlanta, Stokan said, could help with those four schools College Football Playoff rankings.
Time has caught up to college football because there was no course correction against a virus surge, especially in the South where college football was supposed to be so important we would do anything—wear a mask— to get a game on Saturday. The idea of a college football season has turned into a reckoning.
“If we don’t put the masks on now, we won’t play football here in September,” Stokan said.
Sporting events were going to be five of the top conventions in Atlanta in 2020. The three games of the NCAA Basketball Final Four were cancelled in April. Then you have the three football games in September, and the SEC Championship Game in December, all circling the drain. The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl is scheduled for Jan. 1, 2021 and that won’t happen at this rate.
The College Football Hall of Fame, which is smack in the middle of the stadium/hotel/restaurant bonanza, was looking forward to showing off new exhibits to throngs of fans from six schools. The crowds at The Hall will be tamped down without games.
Brian Bullock, the Chief Operating Officer for the eight restaurants owned by Legacy Ventures in the CNN/Mercedes-Benz Stadium area, said losing the three games Sept. 5-12 would be a “massive blow” to the industry.
“I’m not optimistic,” he said. Across the eight restaurants, Bullock said the loss of the three games would mean losing a million dollars in revenue.
Bullock, who serves on the board of The Atlanta Sports Council, said there is a better chance for business when the NFL and the Falcons are ready to play because 32 owners are easier to organize against a threat than 50 governors and 300-plus colleges and universities.
Legacy Ventures operates the uber-popular STATS Brewpub, Max’s Coal Oven Pizzeria, Twin Smokers BBQ, and Der Biergarten, along the same sidewalk of Marietta Street. The storefronts were damaged during the unrest following George Floyd’s death and remain boarded up. Bullock said the rebuild will happen in the next few weeks and then there will be a better idea of reopening.
But he expects that the reopening will be for the Falcons, not college football. The banquet space in the 15,000-square feet of space STATS can be repurposed for fans if the virus is still raging and social distancing is called for. There are seven “audio” zones that can spread out fans.
“People want to watch live sports,” Bullock said. “They want to gather and cheer. Just look at the viewership numbers for professional golf and UFC.”
The three college kickoff games might have a chance to be played, if they are without fans, and made for TV. Stokan said organizers have modeled games in Mercedes-Benz Stadium with no fans, 25 percent full, 30 percent full, and 50 percent full. Contracts would have to be renegotiated with schools and Mercedes-Benz Stadium because the game organizers do not get the TV money. Their revenue is sponsorships and tickets.
Atlanta perfected the idea of kickoff games in 2008 and The Chick-fil-A Kickoff game has distributed $83.5 million in team payouts over its 15 games, an average of $5.5 million in total team payouts per game, which was higher than 26 bowl games for the 2019 season.
“For three games, we thought that was going to be a challenge,” Stokan said. “Little did we know we would have to deal with the coronavirus. All this work may go for naught if they schedule conference games only.”