Atlanta—The year was 1985 and Dick Bestwick, the blunt-speaking former coach turned executive director of the Peach Bowl, had a no-frills message for the business leaders of Atlanta.
If you don’t step in to help the Peach Bowl, which was founded in 1968, is going under.
The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce took control of the game and hired a professional staff to run it.
“That was the first of many big steps for us,” said Gary Stokan, who came on board in 1998 and today remains the President and CEO of the Peach Bowl. “And look at where we are today. It’s an incredible story.”
On Saturday, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, a game that stared elimination in the face just four decades ago, will host one of two semifinal games of the College Football Playoff as No. 1 LSU takes on No. 4 at the palatial Mercedes-Benz Stadium downtown. Every ticket has been sold and with standing room Stokan believes the crowd will be north of 77,000-- a record for the game.
The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl is now one of just six designated New Year’s bowls that each hosts a national semifinal once every three years. On the years that it doesn’t host the semifinals, the Peach gets what will almost always be a Top 10 match-up. Last year Florida beat Michigan for the championship.
More simply put: some 45 years after it faced extinction, the Peach Bowl is today sitting in first class of the luxury airliner that is known as the college football bowl business.
“Everywhere I go now people are talking how far we’ve come,” said Stokan.
The fact is that for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl to get to where it is today, a lot of dominoes had to fall into place:
**--In 1992 the bowl moved into the new Georgia Dome which eliminated two of the game’s most vexing problems: An aging venue (Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium) that was never meant for football, and the weather, which was almost always bad.
**--In 1993 the bowl changed its scheduling philosophy and signed contracts to guarantee an ACC-SEC matchup, making it easier for fans to travel to the game. Attendance shot up as the bowl had a string of 13 straight sellouts.
**--In 1997 Chick-fil-A came on board as the game’s title sponsor with a long-term commitment worth $22 million. The popular food chain continues to be the sponsor to this day and has expanded its support to include the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game to start the season and the College Football Hall of Fame, which opened in Atlanta in 2014.
**--When the BCS, which was the precursor to the current College Football Playoffs, was created in 1998, Stokan’s goal was to get the Peach into the four-bowl mix that would host the national championship game on a rotating basis. But the powers that be went with the traditional games—Rose, Sugar, Fiesta, and Orange—as the championship sites. The BCS would last for 16 years.
“Very disappointing,” Stokan said. “Our goal was to be in that group and we didn’t get it done. But sometimes a failure can lead to something else that is bigger.”
So Stokan as his team kept working to make the CFA Peach Bowl the best it could be while waiting for the next inevitable change in the college football’s post-season landscape. They promoted the Atlanta infrastructure, which had hosted the Olympics, the Super Bowl, the SEC championship game and almost every other major sporting event in the world.
They focused on the philanthropy part of the equation and since 2002 the Peach Bowl has given over $31 million to charity. Since 1998 the game has been responsible for $64.2 million in direct tax revenue to the city of Atlanta.
With the SEC championship game, which has been in Atlanta since 1994, the CFA Peach Bowl, the CFA Kickoff game, the College Football Hall of Fame, and a diverse city with college alumni from all over the United States, Stokan and his team branded Atlanta as “The College Football Capital of the World.”
And it certainly didn’t hurt that the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a $1.6 billion state-of-the-art facility, was scheduled to open in 2017.
So when the College Football Playoff was created in 2014 and two more bowls were needed to round out “The New Year’s Six” it was an easy choice to make.
“I think the people involved in the decision making process saw that we were giving back to college football,” said Stokan. “All the elements were here.”
The CFA Peach Bowl hosted its first national semifinal in 2016 when No. 1 Alabama beat No. 4 Washington. After Saturday’s game, it will host the semifinals again in 2022 and 2025, when the current 12-year deal of the College Football Playoff will expire.
There is an ongoing push to expand the playoffs from four teams to eight teams. It will happen. Stokan’s job is to make sure that when it does happen, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl will be part of it.