September 8, 2009
Hokies and Tide show that the Atlanta formula works

Three years ago, Chick-fil-A Bowl CEO Gary Stokan and ESPN’s Dave Brown discussed the idea of staging a colossal college football game in Atlanta to open each season.

Stokan’s plan was to borrow NASCAR’s philosophy and stage the sport’s biggest event on the opening weekend.

“The idea was to make this the Daytona 500 of college football,” Stokan said.

Among the challenges would be finding big-name teams willing to risk an opening-night loss instead of playing a cozy home game – and to find teams willing to make changes to schedules and buy out existing contracts.

Now, after just two games – and two standing-room-only crowds at the Georgia Dome – Stokan and his organization are changing the way both universities and fans alike view their season and their respective bowl games.

“We have teams now calling us wanting to play in this game,” Stokan said. “Atlanta is a great city that’s accessible by car to fans throughout the ACC and SEC region. It’s a city that loves college football. And we have the best playing facility in the country. It’s a fertile recruiting area and we have a prime-time window on ABC.”

The payday is pretty good, too. This year, Stokan paid both Alabama and Virginia Tech $2.3 million each.

The dynamic here, however, is how the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game has changed the way schools and fans view both their regular seasons and postseason bowl games.

Coaches and administrators realize an opening night loss doesn’t necessarily hinder BCS title game aspirations. They (the coaches) like the exposure and they (the administrators) like the money.

But what is even more curious is this: fans from the 2009 competing schools were more eager to purchase tickets for a regular-season game than for their BCS games this past January.

As you’ll recall, tickets were plentiful and offered at bargain-basement, give-away prices for the Hokies’ Orange Bowl game with Cincinnati in January. Yet Tech fans were more than willing to pay full-price, face value for the Alabama opener in Atlanta. In fact, some paid well over face value. The same holds true with Alabama fans when comparing demand for the Tide’s Sugar Bowl game with Utah last January.

Certainly the matchup has lots to do with ticket demand. As does geography and cost. Atlanta is closer than Miami for Tech fans, and it’s much cheaper as well. No brainer there.

But the end result has created some cautious feelings among administrators and bowl types and here’s why: this is the second year in a row that Virginia Tech has opened its season with one of these neutral-site games (Tech faced ECU in Charlotte to open 2008) and the concern among bowl people is, quite simply, the new 2009 catch phrase: fan fatigue.

Tech played in Charlotte and then played in the ACC championship game in Tampa. Thus, the Orange Bowl was Virginia Tech’s third neutral-site game of the season, and that’s a lot of travel and expense for one fan base.

“How many ‘bowl games’ can one team play in during the same year?” one ACC ticket manager asked.

If Virginia Tech wins the ACC’s Coastal Division again this year, the Hokies will have to sell tickets to the league’s title game in Tampa and their bowl game once again. That is, in essence, three ‘bowl games’ during the same season. Tech might have a week to sell tickets to a conference championship game and three weeks for a bowl game.

You can easily see the advantage the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game has over the BCS games.

The game in Atlanta can set its matchup nine months in advance. Fans can make travel plans, arrange hotels and plan other events around a holiday weekend (Labor Day).

Plus, since it doesn’t have to make a payout to the BCS, the Chick-fil-A game can allot its tickets to the competing teams and not to sponsors. They can split the building in half and sell 31,500 tickets to each fan base. That’s why your seat location in Atlanta was much better than it was at the Orange Bowl.

Bowl games are special and unique and part of the great tradition of college football and a wonderful way to end each season.

But they have now seen that a truly special event can also take place on Labor Day weekend to start the season. Now, there are basically two Chick-fil-A Bowls each year – one on Labor Day weekend and one on New Year’s.

Following the Chick-fil-A game model, ESPN and the Dallas Cowboys arranged a BYU-Oklahoma game and that game drew a crowd of 75,437 at the Cowboys’ new stadium. The Sooners lost the game, but sold a ton of tickets to the event and took home $2.25 million.

“There is a finite number of tickets you can sell to neutral-site games during the same season,” Tech AD Jim Weaver said. “Each university is different and each conference is different.”

Oklahoma could play as many as four such games this season: three in Dallas (BYU, Texas and the Big 12 title game) and a bowl game.

Weaver is a strong proponent that geography is the key to the equation.

“That’s why we played the ECU game in Charlotte last year and the Alabama game in Atlanta this year, and the Boise State game next year in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “All three cities are drivable and it allows us to play good intersectional opponents.”

Virginia Tech and USC set the FedEx Field attendance record in 2004. Two of the top four crowds in Georgia Dome history involve the Hokies as well.

“I’ll take the Hokies whenever I can get ’em,” Stokan said Saturday night after Alabama’s 34-24 win in Atlanta. It is quite likely Tech will play in the game again.

Selling tickets in Atlanta is a slam dunk for the Hokies, and Tech might sell 20,000-plus tickets on three weeks notice to the Orange Bowl if the matchup was right (think Ohio State, Penn State, Notre Dame, Texas, etc.). In fact, Tech might turn that number for a Gator Bowl game with Notre Dame, to be honest.

But the bottom line is this: Stokan and his crew have stumbled onto something really special. They’ve got big-time teams who are willing to play a risky game on opening night and have created a culture in which fans are willing to pay top dollar to see it.

Because of the nine-month lead time, campus groups from fraternities, sororities, alumni organizations, individual colleges and more have a tremendous window to arrange logistics for events that drive up attendance. Previously, those opportunities were reserved exclusively for the bowl game in December or January. Now, there’s another option and you wonder if other similar cities and bowl organizations, like the ones in Charlotte, Jacksonville and Nashville, will create their own season openers that might be appealing to teams and fans alike.

It’s a new model. And it appears to be a good one.

Save the Bay

As you probably know, I begin each Virginia Tech game broadcast by saying: “From the blue waters of the Chesapeake Bay to the hills of Tennessee, the Virginia Tech Hokies are on the air!”

Unfortunately, some bay waters weren’t as blue this summer and that’s a shame. People throughout Virginia and our entire region love the Chesapeake Bay and Hokies everywhere can help in the effort to protect the bay by supporting the work of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

During each game broadcast this season, I’ll give radio listeners a Save the Bay tip and encourage fans to visit the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's special Web site to learn more.

The CBF is very active in Virginia, with more than 83,000 members, offices in Richmond and Norfolk, and a staff of more than 30 scientists, environmental educators, restoration and other conservation professionals.

Thoughts on the Alabama game

The Good:

Kickers – Where Alabama clearly is very dangerous is in its kickoff and punt return game. Javier Arenas is likely the top returner in the country. He brought three back for touchdowns last season, and has the speed and know-how to make big returns. Even if he’s not running them back for scores, he’s getting 14 yards per punt return, which is the best among current NCAA players and the top mark in Alabama history. That was a major concern going into the game.

But Justin Myer and Brent Bowden were terrific on their kickoffs and punts, getting great hang time. In their final closed scrimmage of the season, the Hokies spent a lot of time working on recognizing where Arenas would line up and how they would cover the kickoffs and punts. Those guys, and the special teams units, did an excellent job eliminating one of Alabama’s biggest weapons. Also, Matt Waldron made his kicks in his first action as a Hokie.

Toughness There were a couple times in this game where you wondered if the Hokies would answer the bell and come back, especially in the final period after Alabama went up 27-17. That was a tough, physical team in white and the Hokies kept coming back to make it a three-point game, 27-24, in the final quarter. Tech didn’t win the game, but it kept battling against a team that prides itself on pounding the other team into raising a white flag.

It was interesting during pregame warm-ups when Alabama was ‘tackling to the ground’ as it ran through its sets. That’s very unusual in that it was a near scrimmage situation on the field for the Alabama players.

It’s kind of a goal of our program that we want to be a team that nobody wants to play and clearly that comes from how physical you are, how tough you are and the kind of toughness and intensity you play with,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said last week.

But I think the Hokies would enjoy a rematch with Alabama. That’s the kind of toughness you want in a football team. For example, is Cody Grimm the toughest dude you’ve seen? That’s what you want on a team.

Ryan Williams Yes, he muffed a punt, but he rushed for 71 yards and two touchdowns against a defense that was No. 2 in the country against the run last year (in a league with terrific tailbacks) and might be better this year. He has the speed and vision that it takes to run around or through people at that level (Dont’a Hightower, Rolando McClain, etc.) and Tech won’t see many linebackers like that until … well … the rematch with ‘Bama. It was, by the way, Williams’ first college game. Tech’s running game actually wasn’t that bad. Josh Oglesby looked much improved, too.

Speed – Alabama didn’t look faster than Tech. The Tide did a better job of executing blitz pick-ups and running their offense. And they were mighty physical up front on defense, but you saw guys like Williams, Dyrell Roberts and others running with them. That’s an encouraging sign. Alabama is the ‘fastest of the fast’ and has amazing talent, but from a team speed standpoint, Tech looked the part.

The Not-so-Good:

Tech’s passing attack – Teams did have some success throwing the football against Alabama last year, but Tech couldn’t protect Tyrod Taylor, and the entire passing scheme wasn’t as efficient as you’d have hoped. There were about six chances for some really big plays in this game, but Saban and his blitz packages proved to be a handful. Alabama’s defense brought back nine starters from a unit that was among the nation’s best last year and was clearly playing with a chip on its shoulder after last season’s late collapse.

After Utah threw for 336 yards last year in the Sugar Bowl, Saban and his company spent the summer working on corrections and it showed. Other than a couple of busts in the secondary, especially on Williams’ wheel route down the right sideline, ‘Bama was excellent against the pass. The Hokies don’t have a Utah-like passing philosophy or a thrower like Brian Johnson (Utah’s quarterback threw for about 8,000 yards and 57 touchdowns in his career), but clearly, the Hokies needed to pass the ball some against Alabama to be effective. They couldn’t.

Muffed kicks – Tech muffed a punt and mishandled the opening kickoff and fumbled a later kickoff return. No-can-do vs. No. 5. When you’re playing a team like this, you have the same margin for error as your dentist does when he’s doing a root canal – none.

Communications – At times, Tech’s offensive line and its defense had a hard time communicating or getting its calls in at the right time. Alabama did some new things on defense, thus the timeouts early in the game. Breakdowns in communication will be solved by this week’s game. By the way, Alabama had some breakdowns, too, but Tech just didn’t take advantage of them. There were some chances for some huge plays offensively, but the ball didn’t get to the right guy.

For updates on Virginia Tech Athletics, follow the Hokies on Twitter (@hokiesports).

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