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‘Kickoff’ aims for college football spotlight

Gary Stokan, the Chick-fil-A Bowl chief, wasn’t looking for just another game to promote when he paired Alabama and Clemson for a season-opening Aug. 30 showdown.

He hoped to create a “kickoff” property capable of directing the nation’s attention to one site for the start of the college football season.

Stokan, who has presided over the Chick-fil-A (formerly Peach) Bowl since 1998, watched as the NFL’s opening weekend evolved into a celebration, complete with concerts and all the corporate trimmings, and wondered why the same couldn’t be done for the college game.

Chick-fil-A, the bowl’s longtime title sponsor and one of the bigger spenders in the college space, was quick to jump on board as title sponsor of the College Kickoff, which is a separate buy in the six figures from the bowl game entitlement.

“We saw an opportunity to create something and brand it,” Stokan said. “With the ACC and the SEC in this area, we think Atlanta is the heartbeat of college football.”

Steve Robinson, Chick-fil-A’s chief marketing officer, added, “This is not a one-off. We plan on doing this every year.”

Pulling off a college game that has national appeal is difficult, said Ken Haines, president and CEO of Raycom Sports, which managed the Kickoff Classic at the Meadowlands and the Disneyland Pigskin Classic in the 1990s.

“The concept of a kickoff to the college season is a good idea, but what makes it tough is that the college game is so regional compared to the NFL,” Haines said. “While we did generate some national interest, it wasn’t as easy as we thought it was going to be.

The College Kickoff hopes to evolve into a
celebration for college football similar to what
the NFL has built around its opening weekend.

“With these games starting in August, we found it difficult to switch the viewer out of the summer/vacation mind-set and immediately into college football. The college game tends to build up to a climax with the bowls, so generating that much interest in the first week, that’s one of the biggest challenges.”

The Alabama-Clemson game will have a “bowl” feel, with tickets evenly distributed — it’s a sellout — and all of the FanZone activities at nearby Centennial Olympic Park. The Chick-fil-A College Kickoff logo will cover the center of the Georgia Dome field.

Chick-fil-A will have plenty of corporate company activating in Atlanta, including Coca-Cola Zero, Kodak, GM/Pontiac, and through its ESPN association, Home Depot, AT&T and Proctor & Gamble, which will promote five of its brands in Atlanta: Gillette, Tide, Braun, Old Spice and Head & Shoulders. Gillette is the presenting sponsor on ESPN’s Kickoff Week.

Coca-Cola Zero is the presenting sponsor of the FanZone, while GM/Pontiac is bringing its interactive mobile unit. Larry Daniel, marketing manager for Pontiac/Buick, said he anticipates running 30,000 consumers through his display, about 5,000 more than they did for the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. These sponsorships, along with Kodak, were sold by the bowl, while the other activating sponsors, Home Depot, AT&T and P&G, were brought in by ESPN.

The “College GameDay” crew will make Atlanta the centerpiece of its daylong coverage.

“We didn’t realize how big this thing would be,” Daniel said. “It fits everything we do with college football.”

This is just the start. Stokan and Chick-fil-A, stoked by the early success of its inaugural effort, envision a longer weekend of activity in future years with a college game at the Georgia Dome on the opening Thursday of the season, followed by a high-profile high school game on Friday night and a concert on Saturday along with FanZone and an A-list game that night.

“We’ll see how all of this goes, but Gary is going after this in an aggressive way,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s senior vice president of college sports. “If this thing is the home run we think it’ll be, then maybe it becomes an annual destination.”

Chick-fil-A jumped at the
opportunity to build on its
many college sponsorships.

The original concept was hatched about three years ago, Stokan said, and had more to do with the end of the season than the beginning. Stokan wanted to create a second bowl game for Atlanta, one that would be played before Christmas and match a Big Ten school against an ACC school. Exams and other conflicts arose — Chick-fil-A was not thrilled with the idea of another bowl game in the same market so close to its traditional New Year’s Eve slot.

So Stokan turned his attention to the start of the season. He joined efforts with Dave Brown, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions, and they went after a neutral-site, bowl-like game to kick off the season. Clemson and Alabama, two teams with close proximity, rabid fan bases and high expectations for the season, added a “must-see” flavor to the College Kickoff.

Virginia Tech has already been confirmed for the 2009 Kickoff, but Stokan is not married to the idea of an ACC-SEC matchup every year, like they have in the bowl. Teams with a national identity, a Michigan, Ohio State or Texas, will be likely targets for future years.

Scheduling is the biggest obstacle to making the Kickoff an annual hit. Many teams, resistant to the idea of starting 0-1, like to begin with a warm-up game. Football teams also schedule well into the future, which makes the chore of pairing two top-flight teams difficult. Stokan said he’s had conversations with schools about games as far out as 2013. A lot can happen between now and then, from coaching changes to scandal to a reversal of winning fortunes, any of which could zap the luster from a game.

While ESPN has been integral to the formation of the Kickoff game this week, its “GameDay” crew is committed to the best game of the week. If “GameDay” and its marketing support finds a bigger game somewhere else on opening weekend, the Kickoff concept might not be as attractive.

Schools also must consider the financial implications. Top teams can generate as much as $3 million to $4 million in revenue from a home game, and most of Stokan’s targets would be sacrificing a home game to play in the Kickoff. He’s targeted teams that already have seven home games confirmed on the 12-game schedule.

Whatever the Kickoff game makes above its $5.5 million budget goes to the teams. Clemson and Alabama are expected to receive about $2 million each, Stokan said, and if the Kickoff concept grows, that figure could eventually match what top teams make for their home games.

Clemson and Alabama each received 31,000 tickets and both quickly sold out their allotment, Stokan said. Tickets went so fast that there was never a need for a public sale. Georgia Dome suites are reserved for the holders of those suite licenses.

The kickoff concept isn’t totally new. The Kickoff Classic at the Meadowlands enjoyed a run from 1983 to 2002 and became a rare staple in an era when several kickoff games came and went. Those were the days when teams played 11 regular-season games, but teams that participated in the kickoff games were allowed by the NCAA to play 12. The NCAA outlawed those games after the 2002 season, and college football has subsequently kicked off without much of a headline event.

The same year that the NCAA nixed the kickoff games, the NFL created its own version to help New York boost its economy post-9/11. Now it’s played at the home of the defending Super Bowl champs, which takes it back to New York next month.

The College Kickoff appears to have the legs for that kind of a run as long as Stokan can deliver the teams.

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