Georgia tight end Jordan Davis (85) comes out of the smoke at the 2016 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game between Georgia and North Carolina at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, September 3, 2016. (Photo/Henry Taylor)

Peach Bowl Inc. President and CEO Gary Stokan is trying to bring college football back. His company, in conjunction with athletic directors and Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, have scheduled three Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games over Sept. 5-12 to open the 2020 season.

Due to the obstacles presented by COVID-19, the contests between West Virginia and Florida State, Georgia and Virginia and North Carolina and Auburn hang in the balance. 

Depending on whether the ACC, SEC and Big 12 allow non-conference competition this fall, and whether the stadium will allow enough fans to make the kickoff games financially viable, the agreements could unravel in the next six weeks.

The Red & Black’s sports editor William Newlin spoke with Stokan over the phone to discuss contingency plans, shifting contracts and the games’ importance for both fans and teams. 

William Newlin: What is your confidence level that the kickoff games will occur as scheduled? 

Gary Stokan: Obviously, everything is guided by the paramount priority of safety for everybody involved. So that will rule the day. But I know the conferences would like to play their full schedule. Whether that's available or not to them, we’ll know by the end of July. So we're just waiting to see and building contingencies based on what they decide whether conference-only or conference plus one [non-conference game] or conference plus two or the whole schedule. 

Newlin: What are some of the contingency plans you and your staff have put together?

Stokan: When you look at protocols in the stadium, we'll probably have masks. Everybody will have to wear a mask. We're discussing whether we do clear bags or no bags at all. We will not have bands or cheerleaders on the field. We won't have any presentations on the field. The team box will go from the 15-yard line to the 15-yard line to give a bigger, wider spread for the team, and less people [will be] close to the team. We’ll close the clubs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on the ground level and the patios. So, those are just some of the many ones that we're talking about putting into place.

Newlin: Is there a certain threshold of fan capacity in which you or the teams might say it’s not worth it to play the kickoff games?

Stokan: Well certainly at zero capacity we can't do the games because we have no revenue coming in to pay the teams and pay Mercedes Benz Stadium. So, in that case, the teams would have to decide whether they want to play the game, in the case of Georgia-Virginia, [either] in Athens or in Charlottesville, or cancel the game altogether. So that's an example. I think it's 25, 30 and 50% with what we've modeled, we could do the game. But again, that's going to be based on a negotiation between Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the two teams playing in the game as to what their ticket allotments would be and what the resulting payouts would be to the teams.

Newlin: What is the financial impact of potentially a 75% reduction in stadium capacity?

Stokan: We don't receive any of the TV revenue. That money goes to the conferences. Our revenue streams are strictly ticket revenue and sponsorship. So you can see, if you start to model out 25% capacities, sponsorship is going to go down, [and] ticket revenue is obviously going to go down. So we have to meet with the [athletic directors] of the schools to say “OK, here's how many tickets you can have. In the case of Georgia-Virginia we're oversold. On all three of these games we're oversold with 25% [capacity]. So, we have to go back to the schools and say “Here's the tickets we can allot you, and secondarily, here's the payout we can make you,” neither of which is going to be similar to what's in the current contract right now. And the [athletic directors] understand that.

Newlin: Is there a mechanism for deciding who will be able to keep their tickets given limited capacity?

Stokan: We're working with Ticketmaster on software that will allow us to seat people with the social distancing, and CDC [guidelines] and the wearing of the masks. And so once we have that, we go back to the teams and say okay, instead of “x” number of tickets in your contract you're now allotted “y” number of tickets, and then it's up to them to go back to the people that have bought those tickets and allocate who would get those tickets.

Newlin: What do you think is the importance, especially this season, of playing the kickoff games?

Stokan: Certainly, I think people in college football are ready to watch some games. College football is second only to the NFL in fan avidity, and I think people want to watch it on TV or come to the game if they can. But to have something on TV, you got to have the game. And so we need the conferences to allow us to play these games … And as we saw in 2017, you know with number one against number three, the greatest opener of all time, Alabama beat Florida State [but didn’t] win the SEC. But because they had that win, they got in the playoffs and wound up winning the national championship. So, these games are very meaningful to helping teams get in the College Football Playoff or New Year’s Six bowl games.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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