Hope and pray that a presidential visit isn’t in store for your sports event — if you are an organizer or a fan. That’s the lesson from President Donald Trump’s appearance at the College Football Playoff in Atlanta. I felt bad for CFP organizers, including Bill Hancock and Michael Kelly, and the executive team of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Steve Cannon, Rich McKay and Scott Jenkins, among others, who had planned for years on successfully executing around this big event. I felt even worse for the fans, many who waited two hours in a damp, cold rain to get into the facility for such a highly anticipated game.
All of us have experienced a similar situation and can agree that it sucks. There is so much talk about — and steps taken — to improve the fan experience, that when it breaks down, it’s discouraging. When you hear officials of Mercedes-Benz Stadium talk, you can sense their incredible frustration about what occurred, as they were as angry as anyone. The takeaway is simple: during a presidential visit, especially one announced just a few days out, organizers lose control on directing and handling logistics.
“When we found out the president was visiting, we tried to understand the impact of it. It’s hard to do,” McKay said during a recent meeting with our editorial staff in Charlotte. Stadium officials expressed frustration by the dearth of communication from the Secret Service, who took over the event, bringing in their own metal detectors and dictating access points. As one said: “They have a reason for what they do, but they are not going to tell you.” McKay outlined all the steps the organization took — from stressing to fans to get to the game early, to moving up entrance openings by 30 minutes, to trying to shift people who were waiting in the rain to more accessible gates. But as evidence of how hard it can be to make nimble adjustments, officials said that even when told that another gate had no wait, fans refused to move, concerned of losing their place in the long line they had already invested time in. “We sent people out to tell them to move and many did, but many didn’t,” McKay said, wearily. “We just couldn’t get people to move around. Next time, we’d probably be more vocal and louder to try and get people to move.”
Little worked right that night to get people in the building for an organization that has worked hard at the fan experience in their new facility, and has been ranked atop recent NFL fan studies for operational excellence. “It’s not something we were happy with,” McKay said.
We all remember the powerful moment when President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium after 9/11, but such historical moments are rare. Face it, fans get understandably excited during a presidential visit. But in the future, the White House and event organizers have to do all they can to minimize the disruption, however possible. Because while a visit from a sitting president amplifies attention and excitement around an event, it may not be worth the headaches, challenges and frustrations for organizers and, most importantly, fans.
ADVANTAGE ATLANTA: The business success of the AMB Group, which includes the Atlanta Falcons, United, Mercedes-Benz Stadium and PGA Tour Superstore, among other entities, has been impressive. Company executives outlined the highlights of 2017 and plans for 2018 during a meeting with our editorial board in Charlotte, and a couple of things caught my eye. First, less than 4 percent. That’s the shockingly low number of overlap between season-ticket holders of the Falcons and the Atlanta United. Second, the United’s inaugural season success is well-documented, but I still can’t believe they have a season-ticket base of 35,000 and are seeing a 92 percent renewal rate. This is a franchise that could average an amazing 50,000 per game next year. Third, the PGA Tour Superstores saw 15 percent same-store growth this year, e-commerce sales were up a massive 42 percent, they added four stores and have plans to grow from 31 stores to 50 over the next few years. While not predicting a sudden upward trajectory in golf sales, executives feel the game’s retail business has stabilized. Finally, expect to see some results soon from the Falcons’ closely watched value-pricing food and beverage offering. Remember the industrywide angst over the $2 hot dog and $2 bottle of water? Well, early indications are that sales surpassed even the organization’s expectations. My question is simple: Who will be next to follow the cost-conscious model?
ME AND MY UNCLE, A UMASS MAN: I attended the funeral service for my uncle, Dr. James Ralph, of Amherst, Mass., earlier this month. The Ralphs, my mother’s side of the family, instilled a strong love of sports in me, and my Uncle Jim was very influential in teaching me the nuance of competition, as well as introducing me to some great athletes and teams. He worked at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and was the team physician for the athletic department from 1964-97. Over that time, he developed close relationships with several athletes and coaches, and introduced them to our family. In the early 1970s, he told me stories about a young basketball player, Julius Erving, that he called one of the most special young men he encountered. That was followed by the gift of a classic autographed photo of Dr. J wearing a New York Nets uniform and scrubs performing “surgery” on a red, white and blue ABA basketball (I still have it), and it began my long appreciation of Erving’s talents. Uncle Jim shared stories about Lou Roe, Marcus Camby and, of course, John Calipari, who went on Twitter immediately after my uncle’s death to praise him. My uncle loved being a part of the UMass athletic family, and was inducted into the UMass Athletic Hall of Fame. He remained a season-ticket holder and attended home games of various sports — sometimes taking in three games a day — even while his health declined. He personified what it meant to be a “team” doctor, and the outpouring of support from former athletes and coaches reinforced how much of a positive impact he made on people.
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.