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Volume 21 No. 17
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Mercedes-Benz Stadium struggles with logistics, long lines

From the College Football Playoff Championship Game in Atlanta

Fans line up in the rain to get into Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the national championship game.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
A combination of increased security from President Donald Trump’s visit to the game, lengthy lines and cold, rainy weather conspired against fans, many of whom waited 90-120 minutes to make their way into Mercedes-Benz Stadium and then entered soaking wet.

Complaints about fan ingress and egress are nothing new for the stadium, which opened in August. Bottlenecks and a lack of directional signage have been cited as problems before, going back to the stadium’s season-opener when Alabama played Florida State. But after the Jan. 8 championship game, the long wait time was easily the most discussed aspect of the game. Many fans complained about the lack of communication and not enough security or fencing to create orderly lines.

Two hours before kickoff, Gate 1 closed to prepare for Trump’s entrance, sending several thousand fans to other gates that already were jammed with people.

Dan Corso, president of the Atlanta Sports Council, said that many stadium operations are turned over to Secret Service when a president visits.

“When you have the president of the United States attending the event, security becomes the most important thing,” Corso said. “The stadium works under the guidance of the Secret Service in a situation like that. Once folks got in and could enjoy the game, the excitement was incredible. … The president’s visit is an illustration of the size of the event in just its fourth year.”

The CFP championship is just the start of an ambitious three-year run for Corso and Atlanta, with the Super Bowl coming in 2019 and the NCAA Final Four in 2020, mostly thanks to the dazzling new stadium. But as the Georgia-Alabama game reminded, Mercedes-Benz Stadium has no shortage of problems moving foot traffic in and out.

ESPN PLUS: Small-to-medium college conferences have looked into shopping their rights to digital companies such as Facebook and YouTube to get more control over their start times. But ESPN is making a play to keep those conferences in the fold, as its planned direct-to-consumer product, ESPN Plus, will have a heavy college presence, especially for schools outside of the power five, according to Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president, programming and scheduling.

ESPN’s interest in those rights could provide FBS conferences such as the Sun Belt and Conference USA, as well as others outside the FBS, greater value.

“We’re going to drill down as far as possible into the inventory from conferences big and small,” Magnus said. “There’s a real opportunity there over time.”

Almost all of the live inventory among the power five is spoken for, given the rights deals and conference-branded channels that currently exist. But four of the five leagues outside of the power five — Conference USA, Sun Belt, Mountain West and American Athletic — will start negotiating new rights agreements over the next two to three years. Conference USA is in the market now with a partial package of games.

Magnus expects ESPN Plus to become a digital home for some of those rights. ESPN also could offer space on its linear channels to some of those conferences’ bigger games, since the network lost half of the Big Ten package to Fox.

“There’s a lot of content, not from the [power five], but from other conferences,” Magnus said. “There’s a lot of college content that could be produced, packaged and presented in a much better way. Most of it is not aggregated and not branded. Our approach will be to take as much of it from individual conferences, get all of their content, every varsity sporting event is produced, and present it in a digital network format.

“Conferences still crave the reach on over-the-air or widely distributed channels, but the flip side is that they crave a comprehensive offering for fans and families.”