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Bowled them over: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl earns spot in college football playoff

chickfila bowl interviewGary Stokan, upon being named the president of the Atlanta Sports Council and the Chick-fil-A Bowl in 1998, set out on a bold path for the bowl game, long considered the top second-tier bowl game in college football.

The thing about being the top second-tier bowl game is that it’s somewhat akin to being the proverbial world’s tallest midget. Stokan had bigger dreams.

“At our first board meeting, I told our board that my job is to get us into the BCS. So here we are,” said Stokan, talking about the elevation of the bowl into the college football playoff rotation.

The bowl, rechristened the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, will host a semifinal playoff game in 2017, and Stokan has yet higher ambitions for the bowl.

“The next challenge for us to build on that is to go out and win the bid for the national championship game, which we hope we’re successful in bidding next spring for the January 2018 national championship game,” said Stokan in an interview at the ACC Football Kickoff in Greensboro, N.C., last week.

The bowl game has built on its high profile with a string of 17 consecutive sellouts of its matchup of ACC and SEC teams in Atlanta. The New Year’s Eve night game is also annually among the highest-rated college football games of the year.

Stokan attributes the success of the bowl to the efforts of a team including the bowl committee, Chick-fil-A – “Chick-fil-A coming on as our title sponsor has helped us financially, but also as a marketing partner; they’ve been a great partner, and we’ve kind of blurred the lines of sponsorship and made it kind of a partnership,” Stokan said – and Atlanta-area fans.

“The ACC-SEC matchup is very helpful, because we have the #1 or #2 alumni bases in those two conferences in our city,” Stokan said.

The bowl has also expanded its reach by adding early-season kickoff games to its schedule. The move by the NCAA in 2006 to go to the double host model with the BCS, giving one of the BCS bowls a second game every few years that would be the national championship game, forced the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl’s hand a bit in that respect.

The committee wanted to get a BCS-type game, and decided to do it on the front end with the kickoff games.

“In 2008, after the NCAA legislated a 12th game, we created the Chick-fil-A kickoff games, and we’ve been able to have great games, ranked teams, great TV viewership and sellouts,” Stokan said.

The effort to create the kickoff games, the relocation of the College Football Hall of Fame to Atlanta, and the ongoing success of the postseason bowl game were all part of the case the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl committee made for inclusion into the playoff system.

“We wanted to make a step up, so the opportunity to have a semifinal playoff game every three years, and then to have two Top 15 ranked teams every other year, was something that was interesting for us, because that was the next step up in our evolution,” Stokan said.

“We felt like if we stayed where we were, the bowl system was changing to the point where now the conferences were going to select the teams for us, so we’d lose that. The number of ticket allotments you were going to get was going to go down. So we felt we’d rather take the step up and have semis and the Top 15 teams playing in our bowl game,” Stokan said.

The presence of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in the playoff rotation may be a surprise for some fans. The game doesn’t have the pedigree of the Rose, Sugar or Orange, but it does have that track record of high TV ratings and sellouts, the deep college football fanbase, and tremendous infrastructure advantages.

“We’ve got 13,000 hotel rooms downtown. We’ve got hourly flights from New York, Boston, Philly, Chicago, D.C. Eighty-three percent of the country can be to Atlanta on a two-hour direct nonstop flight,” Stokan said. “I think as you build off all those things, the sellouts that we’ve had, the reputation that we’ve developed for college football, caring about college football, giving something back, the fan base that we have living in Atlanta, all of that put together makes great sense for why we should be in the playoff.”

And now that the game is in the playoff rotation, the hard work has just begun.

“We’re in the college football playoff. It took a lot of people a lot of years, a lot of work and a lot of effort to get here,” Stokan said. “We do so humbly. We do so knowing that we need to continue the hard work to ensure that we continue to deliver the experience that we’ve delivered in the past to all those people who’ve sold out the Chick-fil-A Bowls.”

– Column by Chris Graham


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