SBJ/April 1-7, 2013/Colleges

Charlotte lining up for its own kickoff game

Charlotte intends to join the ranks of Atlanta, Dallas and Houston as cities that host annual kickoff games on college football’s opening weekend.

Organizers in Charlotte say they are deep into negotiations with several schools, offering a high-profile matchup with multimillion-dollar guarantees and a bowl-like atmosphere in an NFL stadium.

Will Webb, executive director of the Charlotte Sports Foundation, said the schools that have been approached represent nearly all five of the major conferences in college football, with the talks targeting an inaugural game in 2014 or 2015.

Auburn-Clemson was one of two games that made up the Chick-fil-A Kickoff last year.
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
“We’ve had discussions with schools as far out as 2020 or 2021 and on down the line,” said Webb, whose foundation also promotes the Belk Bowl and the ACC football championship game. “We’re talking to some teams from this region — the Carolinas, Virginia — but also big-name schools that are not local, including schools from the Midwest. We’re exploring everything.”

Webb said he’s engaged Charlotte-based department store Belk, title sponsor of the city’s bowl game, as a potential title sponsor for the kickoff game. The bowl game features schools from the ACC and Big East.

Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium, home to the NFL Panthers, has been the site of season-opening games before. South Carolina most recently played East Carolina in a season opener, in 2011. ECU played an opener there in 2008, as well, against Virginia Tech.

While those one-offs have enjoyed varying levels of success and typically focused on teams from the region, an annual kickoff game would attempt to draw more national brands.

“That kind of a game works here because of Charlotte,” Webb said. “It’s easy to get in and out with the airport here, and having an NFL stadium is a critical piece, too. We’re putting together the kind of budget that would lure big-name teams.”

Other games of this type pay guarantees of $3 million to $4 million a team, enough to make it worthwhile for one or both schools to give up a home game for the exposure of a high-profile opener. Sponsorships and ticket sales account for the majority of revenue. TV rights are controlled by the conferences of the competing teams, so the game would not receive any rights fees.

Webb said that if Charlotte can become the home for an annual game, it likely would include some additional entertainment elements, such as concerts and fan fests.

“These games really are like mini-bowls,” he said.

Atlanta started the national kickoff craze in 2008 and has played one or two games on the season-opening weekend in the Georgia Dome each year since. Organizers of the Chick-fil-A Bowl run the games, and Chick-fil-A sponsors them, in addition to the bowl.

The Dallas Cowboys operate the Cowboys Classic game each year in Arlington at Cowboys Stadium. Beginning this season, ESPN Regional Television will work with the Houston Texans and Lone Star Sports and Entertainment to put on the Texas Kickoff Classic at Reliant Stadium.

The college season typically opens a week before the NFL season, so stadiums are usually available.

“We’re close, but nothing is locked down,” Webb said. “It’s a chicken-or-the-egg thing. We’re hoping that if we lock down enough big-name teams, sponsors will be an easy sell.”


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