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Post Preserving Atlanta’s stake in college football

Tuesday February 21, 2012

Via Holly Anderson at SI, some information from Chick-fil-A Bowl CEO Gary Stokan:

According to…Stokan, three of the top five highest-drawing annual conventions in Atlanta are the SEC Championship Game, the Chick-fil-A Bowl and the Chick-fil-A kickoff game. Stokan credits poultry-sponsored football with bringing in $6 million in state sales tax.

I appreciate Michael Elkon’s effort to think outside the (penalty) box by suggesting the SEC take its championship games on campus to larger stadiums. He has a point – it seems incongruous that around 18,000 more tickets were sold for Georgia’s Coastal Carolina game than for either of its two appearances in the Georgia Dome.

Stokan’s statement illustrates why Atlanta (and the state of Georgia) will fight tooth and nail to maintain, if not expand, their presence in the college football market. It’s a year-round enterprise that involves everything from a golf tournament to fundraising to a now-defunct women’s basketball doubleheader. Oh, and football games. There would be a lot of money at stake if Atlanta’s role in the college football scene were diminished, and the effects would ripple down through the many service and hospitality industries that facilitate the influx of college football fans.

Of course that same economic impact makes those games attractive plums for Atlanta’s competition. For college football, the only comparable facility in the SEC footprint has been the Superdome in New Orleans. With the conference’s expansion into Texas and Missouri, the number of domed facilities in SEC territory triples. The Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, the Alamodome in San Antonio, and Reliant Stadium in Houston have all hosted the Big 12 Championship game and would love to get their hands on some lucrative SEC neutral-site games.

We’ve already seen a shift of sorts towards Dallas. The Chick-fil-A preseason event has been strong for the past couple of seasons thanks to appearances by LSU and Alabama. But the Georgia-Boise State game in 2011, while still a major interconference matchup, drew second billing to the LSU-Oregon game played simultaneously in Dallas. The Atlanta folks have doubled down in 2012 with a pair of ACC/SEC games on opening weekend, but when you’re talking about “JV status” in regards to one of those Atlanta games, it’s hardly the narrative-setting event we’ve seen in recent years. Certainly not when Dallas will offer up Alabama vs. Michigan.

The SEC Championship is committed to the Georgia Dome through 2017. After that, it’s open season. A lot can change in the next five years – we might have a bigger SEC with even more venues entering the bidding. One big factor we’ve discussed before will be the future of the Georgia Dome and the future of professional football in Atlanta. An open-air stadium would just about kill Atlanta’s chances of hosting late-season or post-season games, and a Georgia Dome left to decay without an NFL tenant probably won’t be in the condition to compete with several other alternatives within the SEC footprint.

Stokan’s correct about the impact of college football on his city and state, but he’s under attack from several sides. Comparable facilities in SEC territory will be lining up to host the games. Local interests are lining up to replace or supplant the Georgia Dome with an open-air facility offering little utility outside of the NFL. College football is currently very, very good to the city of Atlanta, but it might not always be so. It would be embarrassing, not to mention costly, for the city to diminish its competitive position in the market for college football games just as the sport’s Hall of Fame opens in town.

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