Duke’s Mayo Classic expects sellout for Georgia-Clemson

ATHENS -- Duke’s Mayo Classic.

If you did not realize that was the name of the season-opening game in Charlotte pitting Georgia against Clemson on Sept. 4, get used to it. You’re going to hear it a lot between now and then.

The Charlotte Sports Foundation is very proud of their new title sponsor. Georgia fans might recall that Belk once had that distinction. The Bulldogs played Louisville in the Belk Bowl in 2014. Likewise, this particular college football event was known for a time as the Belk College Kickoff.

Well, now it’s Duke’s Mayo Classic, as in the well-known, Southern-bred mayonnaise that occupies many refrigerators across the country. After 132 years of private ownership, the parent company of Duke’s Mayonnaise (C.F. Sauer) was acquired by Falfurrias Capital Partners of Charlotte in 2019.

That group took over as the local bowl sponsor last year. That sponsorship includes the annual kickoff game in Charlotte.

“It’s just a perfect fit, this iconic Southern brand that people are passionate about,” Danny Morrison, executive director of the Charlotte Sports Foundation, which operates both the kickoff game and the bowl, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They’ve been really pleased with the exposure and the partnership and being able to help the restaurant, hotel and tourism industries. It’s not unlike Chick-fil-A’s southern iconic brand.”

Charlotte definitely has taken a page out of the Atlanta playbook. Peach Bowl Inc. Executive Director Gary Stokan and Chick-fil-A made that one-time second-tier bowl game into a New Year’s Six regular and college football playoff participant. They’ve also made Chick-fil-A Kickoff into a must-play game for some of the most powerful programs in college football.

Likewise, Charlotte has long had a bowl game in its fast-growing city 245 miles northeast of Atlanta. But it has operated under many title sponsors, including Continental Tire (2002-04), Meineke Car Care (2004-10) and Belk (2011-19).

Charlotte also has hosted the ACC Football Championship annually since 2017 and is contracted to keep it there through 2030.

It has had this kickoff game since 2015. It debuted as the Belk Classic and featured North Carolina versus South Carolina. There was no kickoff game in 2016, then they paired N.C. State and South Carolina in 2017, followed by Tennessee-West Virginia (2018), North Carolina-South Carolina (2019) and Notre Dame-Wake Forest last year.

One can only imagine organizers’ excitement about this year’s featured matchup between Clemson and Georgia. It will follow an undercard of Appalachian State-East Carolina on Thursday night, Sept. 2.

“It couldn’t come at a better time,” Morrison told The AJC. “No industry has been hit harder than hospitality and tourism. So, for us to have this mega-rivalry weekend couldn’t come at a better time from an economic standpoint and quality standpoint, which is our main mission. We want to have a great game that attracts people to the area.

“This certainly fits that criteria. Some have speculated that it could be 1 versus 2. But it’s certainly likely to be a Top-5 matchup.”

The best news Morrison has gotten yet is that all signs are pointing toward a full-capacity event for that Labor Day weekend. In a press briefing last Wednesday, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said he anticipates gathering restrictions in the state will be lifted completely by June 1. However, it is tied to a mandate that two-thirds of the state population get COVID-19 vaccinations.

“With increasing vaccinations and ongoing work to slow the spread, I anticipate we’ll be able to lift all mandatory social distancing, capacity and mass gathering restrictions by June 1,” Cooper told reporters last Wednesday.

The current order limits most outdoor gatherings to 100 people and indoor gatherings to 50 people. Retail establishments can operate at full capacity under the order, while restaurants are limited to 75% capacity inside. Bars, concert venues and sports arenas are limited to 50% capacity under the order.

“Extremely encouraging,” Morrison said of the Governor’s remarks. “Obviously things have to stay on a good path, but that was really encouraging news.”

The Georgia and Clemson ticket offices are planning accordingly. UGA officials said they are currently processing seat requests for both home and away games and are doing so on the pretense that stadiums will be at full capacity. Donations for the right to purchase season tickets had to be in by April 1.

In the case of the Duke’s Mayo Classic, both Georgia and Clemson will receive 27,000 tickets for the game, which is played 75,000-seat Bank of America Stadium.

Everybody in Charlotte is praying for a full-capacity event. Hotels have been taking reservations throughout and are anticipating sellouts for the first time since the pandemic set in last March. Downtown restaurants and bars are gearing up for big crowds, too. Some of them are planning re-openings ahead of the game.

Nobody is more hopeful for that than Morrison. The Charlotte Sports Foundation has a vision for its game similar to what has been enjoyed in Atlanta for many years now. Between its kickoff games, the ACC Football Championship and their annual bowl game, there’s a $100 million economic impact hanging in the balance for the city of Charlotte, according to Morrison.

They’re currently searching for participants for their 2022 game and beyond. South Carolina-North Carolina has already claimed spots in the the 2023 Duke’s Mayo Classic.

But every eye in the nation will be on this year’s Georgia-Clemson matchup. A fully-attended game that lives up to its Top 10 billing could do wonders to attract future quality opponents.

“The road map for what we’re trying to do with Duke’s Mayo was provided by what Chick-fil-A did in Atlanta,” Morrison said. “We’re trying to mirror a lot of what they’d done. That’s the game plan.”

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