By Amy Wenk and Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on August 15, 2014
Atlanta’s futility at winning championships recently earned it the title of the nation’s most miserable sports town.
But, with the College Football Hall of Fame set to open Aug. 23, Atlanta is vying for a much more prestigious title — College Football Capital.
“I think it solidifies it,” said Barrett Sallee, lead SEC football writer for Bleacher Report. “If there’s a better option [than Atlanta], I’d love to know where it is.”
Despite a Forbes article that slammed Atlanta’s dearth of sports titles, the city’s had the cachet as a top college football town even before the National Football Foundation announced the Hall of Fame was relocating here five years ago.
Few cities host as many college football events — from SEC Championship Games to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and its kickoff games. In fact, five of Atlanta’s top 10 conventions and events are tied to college football, and the five combined represent an annual economic impact of nearly $140 million to the city.
More big-name games could come to Atlanta. Next year, the city will bid to host the 2018 college football national championship, which would be held in the new $1 billion Atlanta Falcons stadium that’s under construction.
Atlanta is also a top television market for college football, ranked No. 5 for viewership by ESPN in 2012. And, it’s home to some of the biggest corporate sponsors for college football, including The Coca-Cola Co., The Home Depot Inc. and Chick-fil-A Inc.
“There’s no other city that can even come close to what college football means to Atlanta,” said Gary Stokan, president and CEO of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
Luring the Hall
Atlanta has had its eye on the Hall of Fame since 1995, when it relocated from Kings Mill, Ohio, to South Bend, Ind.
But despite the Hall’s proximity to the University of Notre Dame— one of the most historic programs in the country — the attraction fell short of attendance expectations in South Bend. It brought just 65,000 people per year, well below projections of 200,000.
In 2009, the National Football Foundation announced the Hall of Fame would relocate to Atlanta. It won the attraction over other college football hubs, including Dallas, which had hoped to bring the attraction to an Arlington site near the $1 billion Cowboys Stadium.
“This was the place to come,” said Steven Hatchell, president and CEO of the National Football Foundation, who credited Atlanta’s civic and business leaders for championing the move. “There was no downside. Nobody would second-guess us coming here with the Hall of Fame.”
A relocation to the South, home to many of the nation’s top college football programs, isn’t too surprising.
Georgia Tech and The University of Georgia have had teams since 1892, whereas the state’s first pro football team, the Atlanta Falcons, launched in 1966.
“College football had a 70-year start on pro football,” Stokan said. “Year after year, generation after generation, college football was all that was available to football fans. It’s just a heritage, tradition and a passion that’s in the bloodstream of college graduates in the Southeast.”
Metro Atlanta is dotted with thousands of graduates from traditional SEC powerhouses such as Alabama and Auburn.
The local Auburn Club alone claims it has more than 23,000 Tiger fans living in Atlanta, according to its Facebook page.
Also consider Atlanta’s history. Georgia Tech has legendary coaches such as Bobby Dodd and John Heisman, the name behind the Heisman Trophy, given to the nation’s best college football player. Georgia Tech is also the winner of the most lopsided victory in the annals of the sport — 222-0 over Cumberland College.
“Atlanta is incredibly strong as a city. It’s a powerhouse as a city. Everything about Atlanta is right for this,” Hatchell said during an Aug. 7 tour. “This is spectacularly awesome.”
But Hatchell stopped short of declaring Atlanta the center of college football, saying that several other cities would try to make a similar claim – Dallas, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
“Everybody loves their football,” he said. “We think college football is part of the fabric of America.”
It’s for that reason that John W. Stephenson Jr., president and CEO of Atlanta Hall Management Inc., which runs the Hall of Fame, said exhibit designers were especially sensitive to make sure every college team was represented in the hall.
The first display that people see upon entering the attraction is the Helmet Wall, which showcases the helmets of the 768 college football teams. With the swipe of a badge, a person’s home team helmet will light up upon their entry.
“We don’t want to be the home of college football,” Stephenson said. “College football fans think the home of college football is wherever they went to school, and that’s OK. We have been very intentional about being even-handed geographically.”
Inside the Hall
On average, it will take an hour and 45 minutes for a person to weave through the more than 90,000-square-foot College Football Hall of Fame, which took over the former Green parking lot at the Georgia World Congress Center(GWCC).
It sits on the edge of Centennial Olympic Park, in walking distance to other top attractions, including the Georgia Aquarium, Georgia Dome, Philips Arena, the Center for Civil and Human Rights, the World of Coca-Cola and the CNN Center.
“We are putting this in the middle of a very active tourism and convention city,” Stephenson said. “We are the only Hall of Fame that is attached to a venue where the sport is played.”
Diehard college football fans may find themselves lost among 50,000 square feet of exhibits that blend historical artifacts with high-tech displays, including a 52-foot-long media wall that brings up photos and stats at the swipe of a hand.
Others might become enthralled in the entirely digital Hall of Fame that details the storied careers of more than 1,000 inductees, including UGA greats Herschel Walker and Vince Dooley.
“If you are a big college football fan, you could stay here all day,” Stephenson said.
While the attraction in South Bend was arranged chronologically, the Atlanta facility groups everything by topic. For example, one gallery highlights the game-day experience, including marching bands, mascots and cheerleaders.
“It’s totally different from South Bend,” Stephenson said, adding the Hall of Fame there featured 1,000 sculpted plaques of the inductees.
When it opens, the facility will connect to the GWCC through a new entryway from Marietta Street.
It will also serve as a catering hub for the adjacent Omni Hotel at CNN Center (its exclusive purveyor of food and drink) and an upscale Chick-fil-A.
There’s a 45-yard football field inside that features a full-sized goal post. Visitors can see their creative struts onto the Astroturf projected on a video screen. The vision is for that field to host a variety of meetings and parties. The attraction offers event space for up to 1,200 people.
“The College Football Hall of Fame puts an exclamation mark on things to see and do in downtown,” said Dan Corso, executive director of the Atlanta Sports Council. “The venue offers a unique and state-of-the-art hospitality space, which is a key selling point in bids to host sports events like the Men’s Final Four, Super Bowl, College Football Playoff National Championship and many others.”
U.S. Sports hall of fames
Pro Football Hall of Fame – Canton, Ohio
National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum – Cooperstown, N.Y.
National College Baseball Hall of Fame – Lubbock, Texas
Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame – Springfield, Mass.
The College Basketball Experience – Kansas City, Mo.
NASCAR Hall of Fame – Charlotte, N.C.
Amy Wenk covers hospitality, retail, restaurants and community development for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.