One reason why SEC should keep its eight-game league schedule

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney celebrates the team's victory over Georgia Tech in the 2022 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Monday, Sept. 5, 2022. Clemson won 41-10 over Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney celebrates the team's victory over Georgia Tech in the 2022 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Monday, Sept. 5, 2022. Clemson won 41-10 over Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gary Stokan was biding his time Wednesday morning amid the radio crews and TV reporters at SEC Media Days, as is his wont this time of year. The CEO and president of Peach Bowl, Inc., Stokan spends every July touring the power conferences’ preseason media events to visit with football coaches, athletic directors and conference administrators. His mission is to sell Atlanta’s kickoff game, which has become a most visible, highly popular and often-copied staple of the college football season.

After the SEC, Stokan had trips planned for the Pac-12, ACC and Big Ten media events. He already had visited the Big 12. On Wednesday morning, on the second floor of the Grand Hyatt Nashville, all he was waiting for was a quick visit with Alabama coach Nick Saban, who has brought his team to what has been the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game (but starting this year is the Aflac Kickoff game) seven times, including the inaugural game in 2008. (The Crimson Tide are 7-0, naturally.)

A short hello wasn’t going to induce Saban to commit to an eighth game in Atlanta, although Stokan stayed in his spot long enough (as he conducted an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) that he ended up shaking hands with Saban twice as the coach made the rounds with his media obligations. But Stokan hasn’t transformed the kickoff game and the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl into such successful entities by leaving stones unturned.

“That’s why I go to all these media days, I go to all the spring (conference) meetings, because you’ve just got to constantly talk to AD’s and coaches and see what works,” Stokan said.

However, Stokan’s job as salesman, logistics coordinator and game organizer likely is about to become even more difficult. If the SEC moves to a nine-game conference schedule – the league considered it earlier this summer for the 2024 season when it expands to 16 teams with the addition of Oklahoma and Texas, but decided to stay at eight games at least for 2024 – pulling together appealing non-conference matchups to start the season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium will require far more string pulling.

“We’ll have to see going forward,” Stokan said. “We want to be in that business, and we’ll see going forward what inventory is available.”

Stokan likens the challenge of creating matchups for the kickoff game to solving a Rubik’s Cube. Teams have to have openings in their schedules for a nonconference game (not always the case as schools sometimes agree to games 10 years in advance or more) and ideally for the opening weekend. They also have to be willing to give up the revenues from a home date for a neutral-site contest in Atlanta (albeit one that does offer a payout roughly in the $4-7 million range) against another power-conference team. Coaches have to sign on to play the opponent that Stokan is trying to simultaneously line up. And it’s much better to bring in two teams that fans actually are going to buy tickets (and book hotel rooms) to see.

If the SEC eventually moves to a nine-game league schedule, it would complicate that process even further. It’s possible – maybe even likely – that a move to nine is in the future, with the potential for a bigger TV contract from ESPN providing impetus.

With a nine-game conference schedule, SEC teams would have only three nonconference games instead of four, reducing the possibility of having an open date. (The ACC is committed to an eight-game league schedule at least through 2026.) Many teams, particularly those with annual nonconference rivalry games (Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina and Florida) will not be keen on playing 10 power-conference opponents or more. The aforementioned four, for instance, would play 11 power-conference games if they were to play a nine-game SEC schedule, their ACC in-state rival and then a kickoff game.

And in the alternating years when teams would have four home league games (as opposed to five), they likely would be loathe to give up the profitability of any of their three non-conference games. It’s part of the reason why Stokan has had difficulty drawing teams from the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12, all of which play nine-game league schedules.

“It makes it tougher, because as an AD, you have to schedule seven home games to make your budget,” Stokan said.

That pressure to keep games at home could be increased with the proliferation of collectives for name, image and likeness deals. Athletic departments are concerned that boosters may choose to allocate money previously earmarked for donations to the department to the collectives instead. It would place a greater onus to derive as much revenue from other sources, like home football games, as possible.

Further, while the kickoff game has benefited from teams wanting to beef up their nonconference schedules to impress the College Football Playoff selection committee (and to solidify their BCS ranking before that), Stokan has seen teams trending toward playing home-and-home series with power-conference opponents rather than a neutral-site game, such as Georgia’s coming series with UCLA, Louisville and Florida State (along with the annual game with Georgia Tech).

To this point and through 2025, SEC schools and their sizable fan bases have been central to the kickoff game’s success. Of the 19 kickoff games thus far at the Georgia Dome and Mercedes-Benz Stadium, all but one have included an SEC team. (Last year’s game between Tech and Clemson, along with this year’s game between Tech and Louisville, are Jackets home conference games that the school has moved from Bobby Dodd Stadium to MBS and framed as kickoff games.) After Tech-Louisville on Sept. 1, the remaining three scheduled games (Clemson-Georgia in 2024 and Virginia Tech-South Carolina and Syracuse-Tennessee in 2025) are all ACC-SEC matchups.

The ACC, which has participated in 14 of the 19, remains a viable partner as it has stayed at eight conference games. Stokan continues to work the Big Ten (which never has had a team in the kickoff game), Big 12 (one team) and Pac-12 (two teams) in hopes of luring one of their teams to Atlanta.

“I don’t give up,” Stokan said. “I never give up on anything.”

Even if the SEC goes to a nine-game league schedule, Stokan expressed confidence that he can continue to solve his Rubik’s Cube, but knows it will be more difficult. Further, an SEC shift to nine could push the ACC to do the same, as ACC schools would themselves have more difficulty arranging nonconference games.

“We want to stay in the (kickoff game) business,” Stokan said. “We think it’s good for college football.”

The game has been a boon for Atlanta, bringing high-profile teams and their fans to the city and contributing to the more than $60 million raised for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and other charities. The game has been a part of Stokan’s vision to make Atlanta the capital of college football, as he has grown the Peach Bowl from a bowl that had the second pick of ACC schools into a New Year’s Six bowl that’s on the CFP rotation. (He also led the successful recruitment of the College Football Hall of Fame from South Bend, Indiana, to downtown Atlanta.)

The role has been gratifying for Stokan, 68, whose passion for the job is evident in the way he tells stories about how he was able to land different teams, shares updates about the progress that CHOA has made in its fight against childhood cancers or reveals the next events he’d love to pull off (staging Georgia-Florida at MBS and scheduling two schools to play basketball and football games on the same November weekend at State Farm Arena and MBS, respectively).

There are several reasons why the SEC could move to a nine-game league schedule. But there’s at least one good reason why eight would be enough, especially for a certain sports marketer from Atlanta.