College football is larger than life down in the south. In Atlanta it is more popular than the NFL, a feat not often duplicated around the country. With momentum building toward Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank getting his wish granted to build a new, open-air football stadium the future of college football in the ATL is foggy at best.
The sport will not lose popularity in the region of course. Georgia Tech and Georgia will still dominate the sports headlines even if the Braves are making a run for baseball’s postseason or if the Falcons are rising to the top of the NFC. That’s just how Atlanta area sports fans are by many accounts. College football rules all.
Because Atlanta embraces college football the way few cities in the country do, it makes sense that it has become the home of the SEC Championship Game during a stretch in which it has become the premiere, and pioneer, conference championship game. Atlanta has also hosted the Peach Bowl turned Chick-fil-A Bowl as well as the Chick-fil-A College Kickoff Game. All three games have been played inside the Georgia Dome since as far back as 1991 (Peach Bowl, SEC Championship Game since 1994, Kickoff Game since 2008). The Georgia Dome extended their contract with the SEC through 2017.
But will the Georgia Dome still be around by then?
Blank is working with the Georgia World Congress Center on plans to bring a new football stadium to Atlanta, telling the Atlanta Journal Constitution “We want to position the franchise to be competitive for the next 35 to 40 years.” It is Blank’s belief that a new open-air stadium would not deter from attracting events, highlighted by college football games, to a new venue.
“No, I think that the new stadium would work well [in conjunction with the Georgia Dome] for certain events, most obviously basketball, which needs to be played inside,” Blank said in an interview. “There are a number of other events that need to be played inside. I think having both stadiums will work well together.”
The Georgia Dome is not technically old by stadium lifespans, opening for operation in 1992, but it has aged quickly by today’s stadium standards. Blank has spent money to help upgrade the stadium with new seats and features during his time as owner of the Atlanta Falcons, but domes generally struggle to stand the test of time. Compared to newer dome stadiums in Dallas and Arizona, the Georgia Dome lags in terms of style and amenities.
The first question that needs to be answered is whether or not Atlanta can afford to support three separate stadiums. Atlanta struggles to sell tickets to their professional sports teams (Falcons were 17th in percentage of seats occupied in the NFL in 2011, the Braves were 20th in MLB, the Hawks ranked 20th in the NBA last season) and the NHL packed up and moved the Thrashers to Winnipeg to resurrect the Jets franchise. Because of the struggles to fill the seats in Atlanta there is a section of the community concerned about using public money to fund a new stadium.
We’ll avoid getting in to the particulars of the money arguments but know this: If Atlanta is going to build a new stadium, there is a concern about losing some high-profile college football events.
Let’s start with the SEC Championship Game, which has become a staple of Atlanta’s sports calendar. When the current contract with the Georgia Dome expires after the 2017 season, the SEC will be able to negotiate with new potential partners for hosting an SEC Championship Game. There are a few options that could, hypothetically, be on the table. First the SEC would have to decide if they would prefer to remain in one location for their game or if they would like to alternate between a couple or handful of locations each year.
Atlanta could remain the destination for the SEC, but the game would move outside and be played on a (likely) natural grass field that will be used for a full season by the Falcons. Ideal? Perhaps not. With the expansion in the SEC adding Texas A&M and Missouri a few new indoor options also are introduced, including Cowboys Stadium (Arlington), Reliant Stadium (Houston), and Edward Jones dome (St. Louis). Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has never been shy about luring in college football match-ups to his new palace of a football stadium, including the Cotton Bowl, early season inter-sectional games and the annual Arkansas-Texas A&M match-ups. Cowboys Stadium hosted a pair of Big 12 championship games before the conference had to abandon the game, and with the SEC now reaching in to Texas why wouldn’t Jones be interested in this potential opportunity? The best conference in college football’s championship game in his stadium? It almost makes too much sense.
But if the Big 12 makes additional moves to return to a 12-team conference the championship game would return, and Jones might be interested in hosting that game for a more regional audience. Houston would be a nice alternative under this circumstance, and St. Louis might make a push to welcome the SEC to their neighborhood.
Setting up a Chick-fil-A Bowl or Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game would seem to be pretty easy to move to a new football stadium in Atlanta. Georgia State currently plays their home games in the Georgia Dome and is building athletic facilities for training and offices. They could stay in the Georgia Dome for their home games, as no plans for a football stadium for the school have been announced.
Kevin is a national college football writer for modenook.com and the host of the No 2-Minute Warning podcast. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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