The University of Georgia and the city of Athens are bracing for what’s coming, but they haven’t seen anything like this in a while around here.
Like about 24 years to be exact.
UGA officials said the closest thing they could compare the impending onslaught of people and cars coming to Saturday’s game between No. 3 Georgia and No. 7 Notre Dame at Sanford Stadium with was in 1995 when the Florida Gators came to Athens.
Because of construction to what used to be called the Gator Bowl and is now named TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, the Bulldogs and Florida were forced to play a home-and-home series on their respective campuses for the first time since 1933. So, after Georgia went to Gainesville, Fla., in 1994, the No. 3-ranked Gators visited Athens on Oct. 28, 1995 (and put a 52-17 thumping on the unranked Bulldogs).
“At the time, officials estimated that we had upwards of 150,000 visitors to Athens,” UGA spokeswoman Rebecca Beeler said of that 1995 game. Beeler said about 110,000 visitors come in town “for a typical SEC football game.”
This time, they’re expecting even more.
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Between the rarity of having a nationally recognized program such as Notre Dame making its first appearance at Sanford Stadium and the game pitting the highest-ranked teams to meet in a non-conference game in Athens since 1966 (No. 7 Georgia vs. No. 5 Georgia Tech), more people than ever usual are clamoring to get close to the action.
UGA expanded its capacity at Sanford Stadium by 500 to accommodate the 8,000 tickets that were promised to Notre Dame in the 2014 agreement to play a home-and-home series. But at least another couple of thousand fans of the Fighting Irish faithful are expected to find their way in.
Meanwhile, thousands of other football fans, most of them rooting for Georgia but some for Notre Dame as well, are just coming just for the party and the spectacle.
Organizers are expecting about 160,000 visitors to campus. The city of Athens had 127,064 residents, according to the 2017 census estimate.
Delays and complications should be expected.
“Visitors to Athens – regardless of whether they are attending the game – should allow extra time for travel and parking,” Beeler said.
There should be plenty to see. To start with, the weather is supposed to be beautiful, 86 degrees and sunny during the day and cooling down into the 70s before the 8 p.m. kickoff.
Also, ESPN’s “College Game Day” show has set up for its national broadcast on the Myers Hall quadrangle just south of the stadium. That usually attracts an early-morning crowd, most of which is expected to hang around until the game.
Recreational vehicles (RV) already were seen in town Thursday, some of them parking in a new temporary location on Broad Street. Most of them are being directed to designated lots further away from campus.
The majority of parking around the stadium requires a pass. However, there are private lots up and down Lumpkin Street and on Baxter and Broad streets. They typically charge from $30 to $50, with prices going up the closer they are to the stadium.
The school has a dedicated game-day website that provides parking maps and directions.
“It’s really all the external stuff puts the stress and strain on operations,” said Greg McGarity, UGA’s athletic director. “A lot of effort is focused on traffic and parking because of the number of people who are going to be in town who either don’t have tickets or have never been here before, so they don’t know where they’re going.
“But inside the stadium, it’s not that different for us. We know every seat is going to be taken, and that’s status quo for us. But there’s more of a heightened awareness. Everybody’s on top of their game, and they understand that all eyes on college football will be not just on Sanford Stadium, but on the campus and the city of Athens.”
UGA had to add four sets of temporary aluminum bleachers on the west-end plaza area underneath the Sanford Stadium scoreboard to handle the overflow created by giving Notre Dame 8,000 tickets, rather than the usual 7,500 for visiting opponents. UGA students will occupy the temporary seats, which are general admission rather than assigned.
The game long been sold out, but tickets are still available on the secondary market. The “get-in price” – the cheapest available ticket – was approaching $400 two days ago.
Police are urging fans not to buy tickets on the street Saturday. They said an event this size typically attracts a criminal element looking to make a quick buck. Not only are there concerns about counterfeit tickets, but also counterfeit money.
As for lodging, it you haven’t already secured a hotel, you’re not going to find one in the general Athens area. The local hotels sell out well in advance for all Georgia home games, and that trend has expanded north to Commerce and southeast to Greensboro this week.
One place where lodging can be found is at AirBNB.com. Through that national home rental service, one-bedroom houses within 15 to 20 minutes of Sanford Stadium were available for as little as $180 a night. There also was a large property in downtown Athens that can sleep six that was available for $1,500.
“We can definitely see that there's a huge amount of people coming in this weekend,” said Sam Randall, a spokesman for AirBNB who is headquartered in Chicago. “It's definitely going to be the (largest) guest arrival we’ve ever had in Athens.”
As for the respective football teams, they’re doing everything they possibly can to ignore all the “external noise.” Other that some extra media responsibilities because of the presence of CBS and ESPN, neither Georgia nor Notre Dame has deviated from a standard week of game preparation.
“It’s a bigger game, yeah; there are more people here. But the amount of time that we commit to those people and those groups is really the same,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “We try to manage it and … bundle it together so that it’s 20 minutes at this one time instead of four times, five minutes. So, that is what it is. We’re kind of used to that. You have that almost every week you play an SEC game.”
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