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A bigger kickoff?

The Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta plans to expand from a season-opening game into a long weekend of college football that will rival the NFL’s celebration on the first weekend of play.

The first two years of the kickoff have produced solid matchups with highly ranked teams, but future events could incorporate a game on the Thursday night before Labor Day weekend, a Saturday night game and possibly College Football Hall of Fame inductions on the Friday between. The Thursday game at the Georgia Dome could start as early as 2012, while the hall opens in 2013.

“Now we’re really talking about blowing it out,” said Gary Stokan, the Chick-fil-A Bowl and Kickoff chief who also is directing the College Football Hall of Fame’s move from South Bend, Ind., to Atlanta.

North Carolina will help launch the college
football season in Atlanta against LSU.

An expanded weekend of season-opening football would help the Chick-fil-A Kickoff stay a step ahead of some eager competitors who, like the Atlanta organizers, are working with ESPN to create marquee matchups.

In Dallas, Cowboys Stadium will be the site for TCU-Oregon State. That game pays a little more than $1 million to each of the schools, with ESPN working with the Cowboys to arrange the matchup and stage the game.

Similarly, FedEx Field will be the site for Virginia Tech-Boise State on ESPN on Sept. 6. The Hokies will earn $2.35 million, while the Broncos’ take will be $1.25 million.

The Pac-10 also has begun talks with the Big Ten about a season-opening game in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, but it won’t happen until 2012 at the earliest, Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott said.

“There’s a lot that’s appealing about the game,” Scott said. “It builds on the narrative of the season, which has a beginning, a middle and an end. There’s so much focus on the end of the season, but the idea of a high-profile game at the beginning of the season makes sense because there’s so much buildup and anticipation in August.”

Added Stokan: “It’s an idea that’s caught on and other people are copying it.”

The kickoff concept was a hot idea in the 1980s and ’90s when the Pigskin Classic, Kickoff Classic and Eddie Robinson Classic dominated football’s opening weekend. Those games died off, but the addition of the 12th game to the schedule in 2002 opened the door for new kickoff ideas.

The Atlanta game started the trend in 2008, and its games pitting the SEC against the ACC have drawn crowds in excess of 70,000 the last two years. The Alabama-Virginia Tech matchup in 2009 generated a 4.2 rating on ABC in prime time.

North Carolina and LSU play this Saturday and payouts are expected to be in the range of $2.1 million to $2.3 million for each school, as they have been for the first two editions of the game.

“It’s like an additional home game and, in some cases, it’s financially better than a home game,” Stokan said. “Our payouts are better than 22 of the bowl games, and the teams keep all of that money. There’s no conference split, like you do with the bowl money. Financially, it’s very beneficial.”

The Alabama-Virginia Tech game last year
generated a 4.2 prime-time rating for ABC.
Chick-fil-A Kickoff games
Georgia Dome, Atlanta
2009
Alabama 34, Virginia Tech 24
Attendance: 74,954
Rating: 4.2 on ABC
2008
Alabama 34, Clemson 10
Attendance: 70,097
Rating: 3.6 on ABC

At the center of these games is ESPN, which works with the schools and the venues to arrange the kind of matchups that will be appealing for TV.

Dave Brown, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions, said he hopes to get to a point where games start Thursday, run through Labor Day, take two days off, and start over again the following Thursday.

ESPN has Dick’s Sporting Goods as the overall sponsor for opening weekend.

“The biggest thing is to have compelling matchups,” Brown said. “And programs get plenty of promotion by playing in these games.”

The Chick-fil-A Kickoff game’s organizers are now looking beyond the region for its future matchups. Discussions have been held with Southern Cal about next year’s game, Stokan said, although there would likely be an SEC or ACC team involved in the other half of the matchup.

“We have to get the right matchup for us to go beyond the ACC and SEC,” Brown said. “These are backyard games. We always get great buy-ins from the fans, who typically can drive to the stadium. But if USC and Notre Dame show an interest in playing, we would listen.”

Chick-fil-A spends in the mid-six figures annually to sponsor the kickoff game, which is a separate deal from its bowl title sponsorship, but Steve Robinson, chief marketing officer for Chick-fil-A, has let it be known that he’s on board for expansion of the opening weekend.

“We’re game for both games,” Robinson said. “I think we’re close to getting things set for 2012. We’d love to be the sponsor of games on Thursday and Saturday nights. It’s good for the Chick-fil-A brand.

“We’re not focused on anything else when it comes to major media and we can’t afford to dabble in a lot of other stuff. Once the College Football Hall of Fame gets here, we’re talking about inductions on that Friday, maybe a dinner on Friday night, the games. That’s a pretty great way to celebrate college football.”

Staff writer John Ourand contributed to this report.

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