Vegas has casinos. Orlando has theme parks. And Atlanta has college football.
In recent years, it’s not uncommon to hear Atlanta referred to as the capital of college football. There are the games, like the SEC Championship Game, Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Games and HBCU Classics. In the past, Atlanta has also played host to the HBCU Bowl All-Star Football game. And there’s the College Football Hall of Fame, which was moved to Atlanta in 2014.
But how big is college football in Atlanta, really?
Five of the seven largest conventions in Atlanta last year were college football games, which is saying something when you know that Atlanta is the fourth largest convention city in the United States. In 2017, Atlanta played host to two sold-out Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games in September (No. 3 Florida State vs. No. 1 Alabama, No. 25 Tennessee vs. Georgia Tech), the SEC Championship Game in December (No. 6 Georgia vs. No. 2 Auburn), the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day (No. 12 UCF vs. No. 7 Auburn) and its first-ever College Football Playoff National Championship in January (No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 1 Georgia).
“The kickoff game that we started in 2008 has had a huge impact on Atlanta,” said Gary Stokan, President and CEO of Peach Bowl, Inc., which runs the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Games and the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.
“It’s basically changed the face of college football at the beginning of the season. Now there are big elite teams playing in elite games, which is a huge data point for the College Football Playoff.”
The Peach Bowl, Inc. games combined with the SEC Championship Game bring in more than 210,000 fans each year who attend the games. Last year, Peach Bowl, Inc. events drove $111.5 million in economic impact, including $9 million in direct tax revenue. Since 1999, it’s been $1 billion in economic impact and $60.3 million in direct tax revenue. Tack on another $30 million annually in economic impact from the SEC Championship Game.
For the 2012, 2014 and 2017 seasons, two Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Games were hosted in Atlanta instead of just the one game hosted in other years since 2008. The plan is to have more multi-game kickoffs in the future.
“With the advent of the College Football Playoff, the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl making it into the New Year’s Six, having two Top 10 teams on a regular basis in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Games and then hosting a semifinal every three years, that’s been quite the change since I started in this position 20 years ago,” said Stokan.
Asked how the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl positioned itself to be in the mix with the College Football Playoff, Stokan says it wasn’t by chance.
“First off, we had the vision to make Atlanta the capital of college football. We created the kickoff games and then moved the College Football Hall of Fame here, that was the beginning of it.
“And parallel to that was to continue to have the SEC Championship Game hosted in Atlanta and to keep making progress toward elevating the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. During the BCS, we were able to elevate ourselves to the first pick in the CC after the BCS, and we used that to get ourselves into the New Year’s Six and to host the semifinals every three years.”
Atlanta was also getting a brand new stadium to host these top-tier events, with Mercedes-Benz Stadium opening in August 2017. No doubt, this is a huge reason Atlanta landed the College Football Playoff National Championship for last season.
“We felt like Atlanta being the capital of college football, the great job our staff does and our volunteers, as well has having Mercedes-Benz come online, we felt like we had all the ingredients,” said Stokan. “We had great fan support, great corporate support, the facility in place, and everything has come to fruition.”
Stokan says all of the bowl games do a good job of getting together and sharing their knowledge with one another through the Football Bowl Association, and one thing he’s learned is the importance of continued growth.
“If you stagnate, you die,” said Stokan. “Since I first started here, we go back to the two teams in our bowl a month after they play in our game and do what I call “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Meeting.’
“We talk to everyone from the equipment manager to the players to the assistant coaches, head coach, the president and the band director. We want to learn what we did good and figure out how to do it better. Whatever we did bad, we want to cut it out, and the ugly we definitely want to cut out.”
Stokan says they also survey the fans, the sponsors and even the media in attendance.
“We get a lot of analysis back from our customers who attend our game. This is helpful because they’ve probably tasted our product before and can tell us what they liked and disliked, but they’ve also probably attended other bowl games and can tell us what we should look into and implement.
“We do a download with our staff, and we do a download with Chick-Fil-A. Then we create a SWOT analysis and analyze our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. We come back together at the end of February, beginning of March, and we use all of that information to plan out the next year’s bowl game.”
Stokan says the relationship with the City of Atlanta is imperative to the success of college football in town as well.
“We have a great relationship with our partners and stakeholders, from the facility to the hotels and the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, and even our partner facilities like the College Football Hall of Fame and somewhere like the Georgia Aquarium where we might run an event.
“It takes great partnership and stakeholders along with our volunteers and staff, who are the best in the business. It’s because of all that Atlanta has been so successful in hosting mega events.”
Peach Bowl, Inc. has strategically filled its board of directors with key partners and stakeholders in the community, with board members from companies like Chick-Fil-A, Coca-Cola, Home Depot, the Marriott Marquis and the ACVB. And even as mayors have changed over, Stokan says they’ve always had a great partner in the mayor’s office as well.
“The city really gets it. I think the Olympics taught everybody in this city how to unite and work together. Ever since then, the subsequent leaders of the organizations that work together have just kept those relationships going.
“A lot of it is due to the strength of the CEOs in the Fortune 500 corporations in this town. They make sure everybody gets along and works together, so we’re blessed to have that.”
Stokan walks the talk and continues to push Atlanta to grow when it comes to college football. In 2020, Peach Bowl, Inc. is upping the ante and will host three games in one week. Florida State will take on West Virginia on Saturday, September 5, Georgia vs. Virginia will be played Monday, September 7, and North Carolina will face Auburn on Saturday, September 12. Stokan says they’ll host two games each year in 2021 and 2022. Next season, it’ll be Atlanta’s turn to host the semifinals again, which will repeat in 2022-23 and 2025-26.
Kristi A. Dosh