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ATL Business Chronicle

Sports council shakeup: Stokan to leave to run bowl, hall of fame

By J. Scott Trubey and Maria Saporta
Monday, February 22, 2010, 4:54pm EST | Modified: Tuesday, February 23, 2010, 2:03pm

The Metro Atlanta Chamber plans to split up the Atlanta Sports Council and the Chick-fil-A Bowl in a move that will bring in a new leader for the city’s top sports marketing organization.

The parting of ways between the chamber, its sports council affiliate and Gary Stokan comes as he transitions from the city’s head sports pitchman to pointman on the popular bowl game and the planned College Football Hall of Fame.

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

The Metro Atlanta Chamber, the parent of the sports council, is in negotiations on a deal to allow Stokan to leave the organization, sources familiar with the situation told Atlanta Business Chronicle. Negotiations are ongoing but a resolution could come as soon as next week.

Under the new arrangement, the sports council would remain as a sports promotion and branding arm of the chamber. The bowl game, the Chick-fil-A College Football Kickoff Classic and the college hall will fall under separate non-profit entities under Stokan’s direction.

Stokan, reached for an interview Monday evening, 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.

In addition to being employed by the chamber as its sports council president and CEO, he is also the man in charge of the separate 501 (c) 3 organizations that govern the bowl game and the planned college hall.

“The best strategy is for the sports council to stay within the chamber, and the bowl to evolve out,” Stokan said.

Rumors of a severing of the sports council and the Chick-fil-A Bowl have swirled for weeks, with some members of the Atlanta sports and business community suggesting it at least partly stemmed from a perceived rift between Stokan and the city’s sports teams.

On Monday afternoon, Stokan called any implication that a rift was a cause of a parting “an unequivocal lie.”

Under preliminary plans, Stokan will take on a full-time role of operating the Chick-fil-A Bowl and the Chick-fil-A College Football Kickoff game, in addition to his previously announced position as the CEO of the planned College Football Hall of Fame.

Chamber officials had hoped to reach a deal for Stokan’s exit Feb. 18, but an agreement was not reached in time for a planned chamber executive committee meeting.

Sources close to the situation said sports council Vice President of Marketing Dan Corso has been tapped as a senior vice president of the chamber and will manage the sports council, reporting directly to chamber President and CEO Sam Williams.

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 will remain a negotiating partner of Atlanta’s committee to help the United States secure World Cup soccer in 2018 or 2022.

Atlanta Chamber members will also continue to enjoy benefits of sports council membership.

An official announcement has not been set. Officials from the chamber declined to comment.

Back office operations of the Chick-fil-A Bowl and the Chick-fil-A College Kickoff Classic will remain based at the chamber for three years, at which point it will migrate to the planned College Football Hall of Fame.

Representatives of the chamber will sit on the board of the bowl and hall of fame, while Stokan said he will remain a board member of the sports council.
A rift?

Sources within the Atlanta sports community told the Chronicle that the new sports council would have a greater focus on professional sports.

Stokan’s role will be to continue to build the popular kickoff classic and Chick-fil-A Bowl, which has become one of the most successful outside the Bowl Championship Series. He is also the principal in charge of development and management of the planned College Football Hall of Fame.

According to sources in the Atlanta sports community, the pro sports teams have taken umbrage with Stokan for what has been perceived to be favoritism of collegiate events and the luring of new properties, such as the College Hall of Fame and sports tournaments.

Critics have said Stokan spent more time on the promotion of amateur sports than supporting Atlanta’s existing pro sports commodities: namely the Atlanta Braves, Falcons, Hawks and Thrashers and the TOUR Championship at East Lake Golf Club.

The Chronicle first reported the rift between Stokan and Atlanta pro sports teams last September.

Stokan bristled, 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.

For instance, when the city announced Wrestlemania earlier this month, Stokan noted that the Falcons are responsible for sales of suites and club seats in the Georgia Dome.

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

Stokan, who joined the sports council as its president and CEO in 1998, pointed to the organization’s support and fundraising for the All-Star games for Major League Baseball (2000), the NBA (2003) and the NHL (2008).

The council also spearheaded the city’s push for the Super Bowl in 2009 and 2010.

“The sports council, when it was called upon, when it could do it effectively and had a role to play, supported the pro teams,” Stokan said, adding that any perceived tension between himself and the teams played no part in his change in roles.

But he contends it is also his job to attract and support other sporting events, and the college ranks offered additional opportunities to attract events, and ultimately business to Atlanta.

“If it was perceived that I neglected the pro teams in favor of the college events we were bringing in, perhaps I’m guilty, but it’s also my job,” Stokan said.

Stokan, a former basketball player and coach at North Carolina State University, has nearly 30 years of experience in corporate sports management.

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.
College hall

Stokan’s attention will now shift full time to construction of the college hall of fame, the Kickoff Classic and the bowl.

Atlanta organizers of the hall are nearing completion of a definitive agreement with the National Football Foundation (NFF), the hall of fame’s owner, to build the shrine near Centennial Olympic Park in downtown, Stokan said.

In September, officials with Chick-fil-A Inc., the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the city and the state announced a signed letter of intent with the NFF to move the college football shrine from its current home in South Bend, Ind., to Atlanta. And Stokan was the pointman in the five-year effort to bring it here.

But Feb. 19, the Chronicle reported state support for the $50 million facility has been jeopardized by budget woes under the Gold Dome.

Gov. Sonny Perdue included $10 million in bond financing for the shrine to college football greats in his fiscal 2011 budget proposal. But the newly minted speaker of the state House of Representatives, David Ralston, has said the cash-strapped state legislature will have to make tough choices to get a balanced budget. One of those might be the bonds pledged for the hall of fame.

State support has been seen by many in Atlanta’s sports and tourism community as the linchpin needed to entice private-sector sponsorships to the hall, which is projected to attract 500,000 visitors per year.

The letter of intent signed in September required Chick-fil-A Bowl officials to raise $50 million and build a 50,000-square-foot facility.

Of the $50 million in commitments, Stokan has previously identified pledges of $6 million from Chick-fil-A (including a five-year, $1 million sponsorship), and $5 million from the bowl.

The Atlanta Development Authority has pledged $1 million from the city’s economic development fund and $10 million in new market tax credits, plus non-financial assistance. That puts cash commitments at $12 million, with $10 million in tax credits firmly in hand.

Major corporate support from Atlanta business beyond Chick-fil-A might also be a challenging prospect.

Fundraising for the shrine comes at a time when three other major philanthropic groups are beating the bushes for corporate support.

Maria Saporta

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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