For years, Atlanta’s college football bowl game struggled to sell enough tickets to keep the NCAA from shutting it down. In 1978, for a Georgia Tech-Purdue matchup, the Tech coach’s wife led a ticket-sales drive. In 1983, for a Florida State-North Carolina game, the last-ditch strategy was to ask businesses to buy tickets — and give them away.
In a 1984 story summarizing the struggles, this newspaper began its report: “Ever since its inauguration one rainy night in 1968, Atlanta’s Peach Bowl has verged on becoming a civic embarrassment.”
Those who lived that history got special satisfaction from what happened four days ago: The Chick-fil-A Bowl — the bowl founded as the Peach — was chosen to join the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton and Fiesta bowls as rotating hosts of national semifinal games in college football’s new playoff.
“It has been an amazing transformation,” said Albert Tarica, president of an Atlanta accounting firm and a volunteer with the bowl every year since 1969. “Everything has just fallen into place.
“It’s been fun to see the bowl grow and see the respect that it’s getting in the community, which it did not have in the earlier years,” Tarica added. “During the earlier years, we got some grief.”
The bowl’s early struggles often came down to money. Its payouts were low even by the standard of the times, making it difficult to attract teams with good records and options.
“It was sputtering, having trouble raising the funds,” recalled Bob Coggin, a bowl board member and a retired Delta Air Lines executive. “It was one of those second-tier, third-tier type bowls and wasn’t getting much traction, so there was a risk it was going to go under.”
Compounding problems, the game seemed to bring out the worst of Atlanta’s weather, as Gary Stokan, who began attending Peach Bowl games in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in the 1980s, vividly recalls.
“It would rain or sleet or snow or whatever,” Stokan, president of the Chick-fil-A Bowl since 1998, said. “I think the title sponsor before Chick-fil-A was ‘Weather Plagued,’ because every media report would call it the ‘Weather-Plagued Peach Bowl.’”
It’s hard to say when the bowl hit bottom.
There was the 1978 game for which only 20,277 showed up on Christmas Day despite Janet Rodgers, wife of Tech coach Pepper Rodgers, selling tickets. There was the 1983 game for which local ticket sales barely surpassed the minimum required to keep the bowl’s certification, prompting an NCAA official to tell this newspaper: “The postseason football committee is giving them the opportunity to make a better showing (in 1984), or action will be taken.”And there was the 1985 game at which expanses of empty seats convinced CBS not to renew the bowl’s national TV contract, relegating it to independent syndicator Mizlou for the next three years.
But you’ll notice all of those low points were a long time ago. The bowl has been on the upswing for quite some time, culminating with last week’s playoff decision.
“This has to go down as one of the top comeback stories in Atlanta sports for the old Peach Bowl to be mentioned in the same sentence with the Rose and the Sugar and the Cotton and the Orange,” Stokan said.
“It’s a great tribute to the George Crumbleys, the Dick Bestwicks and the Robert Dale Morgans,” Stokan continued, naming his three predecessors as the bowl’s boss, “and all the staff and volunteers who have put in so much time and effort.”
Veterans of the bowl offer a myriad of turning points in its evolution, including:
1986: The bowl became an affiliate of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, improving its access to businesses. “That’s basically what saved the bowl,” Coggin said. (It remained a Chamber affiliate until 2010.)
1991: The bowl started its ongoing relationship with ESPN, which has televised the game every year since and has heavily promoted it in time slots unopposed by other bowls in recent years.
1992: The bowl moved into the Georgia Dome. That solved the weather problem. And it entered into contracts with the ACC and SEC to match teams from those leagues in each year’s game. That solved the ticket-sales problem, leading to the current streak of 16 consecutive sellouts.
1997: The bowl got its first, and only, title sponsor in Chick-fil-A. That meant more money, part of which was used to improve the choice of teams. Also, “Chick-fil-A’s marketing expertise really helped us grow,” Tarica said.
2008: The bowl expanded its brand by creating the annual Chick-fil-A Kickoff game at the start of the season.
Chick-fil-A came upon the Peach Bowl almost by accident.
“Shortly after the bowl moved into the Dome — this would have been in the mid-’90s — I got invited to a game,” said Steve Robinson, Chick-fil-A’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer. “I was obviously impressed by the building. I was impressed by the (ACC-SEC) matchup. I mentioned to Dianne, my wife, ‘I’m surprised they don’t have a title sponsor on this.’ My sweet wife looked at me and said, ‘Well, why don’t you guys do it?’
“And I thought, ‘That’s a very interesting thought.’ … It was a time when we needed to look at how we were going to support the brand, back then on a more regional basis, and most of our stores were in the SEC and ACC footprint. Dianne’s observation was strategically a very good one.”
The Peach Bowl, founded by the Georgia Lions Lighthouse Foundation, became the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in 1997. It became the Chick-fil-A Bowl in 2006 in return for more sponsorship money. When the playoff system starts with the 2014 season, Stokan expects the game to again be called the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, in keeping with playoff officials’ requirements. The first semifinal here will be played Dec. 31, 2016.
Since 2002, the bowl has donated $15.7 million to charities and scholarships — an example of how its financial fortunes have turned.
As Atlanta bowl veterans celebrated winning the bid for playoff semifinals, another goal loomed: The city plans to bid to bring the national-championship game here at some point. The title game will operate outside the bowl system, but the bowl will play a key role in the bid process.
“I’m getting to that age where I’ve got to start saying, ‘OK, it’s about time to hang it up,” said Tarica, 71, a 44-year volunteer with the Peach/Chick-fil-A Peach/Chick-fil-A Bowl and still a member of its board. “If we get that national-championship game, then I can say, ‘Hey, I’ve been the whole route.’”
The playoff: Beginning with the 2014 season, college football will crown its national champion with a four-team playoff. The semifinals will pit the No. 1 seed vs. the No. 4 seed and No. 2 vs. No. 3, with the winners meeting in the championship game. The teams will be chosen by a yet-to-be-named committee.
Atlanta’s role: The Chick-fil-A Bowl is one of six bowls (along with the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta and Cotton) chosen to host national semifinal games four times in 12 years. Semifinals will be played in Atlanta in the 2016, 2019, 2022 and 2025 seasons — the first in the Georgia Dome and the others in the new Falcons stadium. In the years that the bowl does not get a semifinal game, it will have a non-playoff matchup of teams ranked among the nation’s top 15 or so, with proximity to Atlanta a consideration in the assignment of teams.
Championship game sites: The first title game, the only one put up for bid so far, was awarded to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Atlanta plans to bid for a championship game in the future.
Return of the Peach: Chick-fil-A Bowl president Gary Stokan said he expects the Atlanta bowl in 2014 to again be called the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Stokan said playoff officials told him the bowl must include more than a corporate sponsor in its name in order to be parallel with others in the semifinal rotation (i.e., the Allstate Sugar Bowl and Tostitos Fiesta Bowl). Chick-fil-A will negotiate with ESPN, which will sell naming rights to the playoff bowls as part of its deal to televise them.