Gary Stokan already had secured two matchups for Atlanta’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff event in 2020 – Georgia vs. Virginia and Florida State vs. West Virginia -- when he got a couple of unexpected phone calls.
“Auburn and North Carolina contacted us and said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in a third game?’” said Stokan, who runs the Chick-fil-A Kickoff as part of his role as president and CEO of Peach Bowl Inc.
Always interested in growing Atlanta’s place in the college football landscape, Stokan seized the opportunity. It was announced this month that Auburn and North Carolina will meet in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sept. 12, 2020, Atlanta’s third “Kickoff” game that year, following the Florida State-West Virginia and Georgia-Virginia games the previous weekend.
It’ll mark the first time Atlanta’s season-opening event encompasses a third game and a second weekend.
“My shins are black and blue from my staff kicking me,” Stokan said with a laugh. “But my business (philosophy) is that if you stagnate, you die. And so we always want to be in continual improvement.”
The Chick-fil-A Kickoff started in 2008 and has been held every year since then, making it college football’s longest-running active “Kickoff”-type event. It hosted one game in each season from 2008 through 2011, two games in 2012, one game in 2013, two in 2014, one each in 2015 and 2016, two last year. This year’s game pits Auburn vs. Washington on Sept. 1, a matchup of likely preseason top-10 or top-12 teams and the first appearance in the event by a Pac-12 team.
The Atlanta event started a trend that spread quickly. On college football’s opening weekend this year, neutral-site games also will be played in Arlington, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; Denver; Houston; Landover, Md.; and Orlando, Fla.
A previous incarnation of the concept ended in 2002 when the NCAA eliminated waivers that had allowed a limited number of teams an extra game to play in such events. That rule change ended the "Kickoff Classic," which had been played in East Rutherford, N.J., since 1983, and several similar events.
Stokan relaunched the concept after the NCAA in 2006 increased regular-season schedules from 11 games to 12. He figured the extra game would give teams flexibility to play one at a neutral site.
Such games appeal to colleges for several reasons: The financial benefit is at least comparable with a home non-conference game without requiring a return trip to the opponent’s stadium; the matchups can boost strength of schedule, an important consideration in the College Football Playoff era; and the participating programs can gain valuable exposure, especially if the games are played in recruiting-rich areas.
Atlanta’s third game in 2020 came together differently than most in that the teams approached Stokan, rather than vice versa. The 2020 appearance will be Auburn’s fourth in the event and North Carolina’s third.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn called the Chick-fil-A Kickoff “the premier kickoff classic game.” He said it is a particularly good fit for his program because Atlanta is less than a two-hour drive from campus, because of Auburn’s large alumni base here and because the SEC Championship game is played annually in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“Any time you get a chance to play in the same venue that your conference championship game is played in, I think that’s a very positive thing,” Malzahn said.
The Chick-fil-A Kickoff’s 2020 growth spurt runs counter to one headwind such neutral-site games may face – increasing pressure from college football fans for their teams to improve their home non-conference schedules.
Alabama, under coach Nick Saban, has been one of the bigger proponents of neutral-site games, having opened eight of its past 10 seasons at neutral sites (five in Atlanta and three at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium). The Crimson Tide will open this season in Orlando and will return to Atlanta in 2019 (vs. Duke) and 2021 (vs. Miami). But Saban said last week his program may shift away somewhat from neutral-site games in the future, as reflected by the deal it struck last year to play a home-and-home series against Texas in 2022 and 2023.
“Neutral-site games really launched our program in Alabama when we first came there years ago,” Saban said. “But I think philosophically we're sort of changing our thoughts on that and our future scheduling and trying to get more home-and-homes.”
That would increase the attractiveness of the home schedules.
“We can't have fans who pay a lot of money for tickets and boxes and loges, who support our programs, pay for games that no one is interested in watching,” Saban said.
But Stokan doesn’t think the demand for neutral-site games is diminishing overall. The 2020 trilogy suggests he may be right about that.
FUTURE CHICK-FIL-A KICKOFF MATCHUPS
Sept. 1, 2018: Washington vs. Auburn
Aug. 31, 2019: Alabama vs. Duke
Sept. 5, 2020: Florida State vs. West Virginia
Sept. 7, 2020: Georgia vs. Virginia
Sept. 12, 2020: Auburn vs. North Carolina
2021: Alabama vs. Miami
2021: Louisville vs. Ole Miss
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