Shake-up divides Sports Council, bowl game

By J. Scott Trubey and Maria Saporta
Friday, February 26, 2010

The Chick-fil-A Bowl will be spun off from the Atlanta Sports Council into a new entity headed by Gary Stokan, the bowl’s president and CEO, officials with the Metro Atlanta Chamber said.

Dan Corso, vice president of marketing for the council, has been tapped to head the chamber’s sports marketing arm. The separation is expected to take place March 1.

Stokan, the sports council’s president and CEO for the past 12 years, will shift his focus fully to growth of the bowl, the Chick-fil-A College Football Kickoff Classic and development of the planned College Football Hall of Fame.

“The Chick-fil-A Bowl is one of the most successful, well-branded bowl games in the country, and Gary Stokan’s leadership has been a driving force behind its success,” Sam Williams, president of the chamber, said in a statement.

The chamber took over operation of what was then a struggling bowl game in 1986.

The bowl game and the Kickoff Classic will be spun off into an independent entity under Peach Bowl Inc., the founding name of the 42-year-old New Year’s Eve gridiron battle.

“This is a natural evolution for the bowl, which has grown tremendously since we brought it under the chamber’s umbrella in 1985. We have confidence in Gary’s team and their future success,” Williams said.

The sports council is an important economic development tool for the Metro Atlanta Chamber. It is designed to promote professional and college sports teams, and has been instrumental in landing major sporting events for the city, such as the Super Bowl and Final Four.

“This is an exciting time and a significant milestone in the 42-year history of our game,” Stokan said.

Stokan joined the sports council in 1998. Under his leadership the Atlanta Sports Council was named Sports Commission of the Year three times (2000, 2004 and 2006).

Atlanta has played host to 32 collegiate sports championships since 2000, including the NCAA Men’s Final Four (2002 and 2007), the Women’s Final Four (1993 and 2003). The city also has been home to the SEC Football Championship since 1994.

The city will play host to the Men’s Final Four again in 2013.

Stokan, reached for an interview Feb. 22, said his role needed to be split. Development of the college football shrine needs the full attention of its leadership, and the chamber is not equipped to be a real estate developer.

The college hall is expected to open in Atlanta in September 2012. Peach Bowl Inc., which will own the facility, is still trying to raise reportedly up to $80 million to bring the hall to Centennial Olympic Park.

The council will still coordinate Atlanta’s bids for top sporting events, such as NCAA Final Fours and Super Bowls, and will represent the business community as it applies to sports, economic development, quality of life and the building of Atlanta’s brand.

The sports council will continue to operate the Atlanta Tip Off Club, manage the Atlanta sports awards and the Naismith Trophy and awards banquet, and will remain a negotiating partner of Atlanta’s committee to help the United States secure World Cup soccer in 2018 or 2022.

Jeff Genthner, senior vice president and general manager of Fox Sports Net and chairman of the sports council, said the Feb. 23 announcement represents a milestone of growth for Peach Bowl Inc. and the sports council.

“Gary’s 12 years here are well-documented in growing this into what has become a terrific and valuable asset for the chamber and for the city,” Genthner said.

Stokan, Genthner said, leaves behind a capable team, led by Corso, an 11-year sports council veteran.

“The most important thing in a transition like this is you don’t miss a step,” Genthner said.

Rumors have swirled for weeks about a possible split between the sports council and the bowl. Some in the sports community have said privately that Stokan had a prickly relationship with the city’s pro teams.

Chamber and sports council officials said any perceived tension between Stokan and the teams did not play a role in the spinning off of the bowl game.

Stokan bristled at that characterization Feb. 22, saying his group has been responsive to the pro sports teams. He pointed to a September meeting between the council and the teams and said he has worked to expand the organization’s efforts to promote and support the professional teams.

“All you can do is show the evidence of what you’ve done,” Stokan said. “Experience or effort shows more than words.”

Some in the sports community have suggested the council might take a more pro sports-centric role.

Genthner said the group would focus on growth of existing properties and future opportunities.

“There clearly is an opportunity for us to reach out and do more with the pro teams, but that is not going to be the sole focus,” he said.

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank said the pro teams have an interest in working with each other and the collegiate programs.

“There’s good energy and new ideas,” Blank said of the changes within the sports council. “We would be happy to be involved in any way we could be of help.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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