Chick-fil-A Kickoff games continue planning despite COVID uncertainty

UNC is scheduled to play in the season-opening event in Atlanta

Gary Stokan, Peach Bowl president and CEO, is trying to plan three Chick-fil-A Kickoff games for the first time, all with the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. (David Goldman / AP Photo)

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the return of college football this fall into question. Some smaller conferences have already pushed their seasons to the spring, if at all, and the Big Ten and Pac-12 have already said they’ll be playing only their conference schedules.

The ACC, SEC and Big 12 are still playing wait-and-see, however, with a final decision expected at some point this month.

That decision will have an impact across athletics — and across the college landscape — since most schools depend heavily on the revenue generated by football to fund the rest of their athletics department. One of the people hanging on that decision is Gary Stokan, the CEO and president of the Peach Bowl.

In addition to the Jan. 1 bowl game, Stokan is in charge of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff games, which, like the Peach Bowl, are held annually in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“We’re the proverbial tail on the dog,” Stokan said, “but the tail’s not wagging the dog — we’re not wagging anything here. We’re last to know.”

Normally, Chick-fil-A sponsors a pair of games in Atlanta to kick off the college football season. Duke and Alabama played in one of them at the start of last season.

This year, however, Stokan decided to bite off a little bit more. For the first time, there are three Chick-fil-A Kickoff games scheduled. One of them will match UNC and Auburn. West Virginia vs. Florida State and Georgia vs. Virginia are the others. Unfortunately for Stokan and his staff trying to plan the events, they chose to push themselves in a year when the coronavirus has scrambled all attempts to plan anything.

“My staff thought I was nuts scheduling three games in a week, which has never been done in college football history — 151 years,” Stokan, a former basketball walk-on at NC State, said. “And then to have COVID-19 get on top of that, it’s led itself to some interesting work.”

It’s also led to some uncertain work. As Stokan said, the conferences will let everyone, including him, know their plans for the upcoming season in a week or two, which will obviously have a major impact on the marquee interconference matchups he’s planning.

“Our contingencies have contingencies,” he said. “We have modeled different scenarios, put in different protocols, deleted some things we ordinarily would do. So there’s a bunch of things — obviously, the tickets and the budget, there’s impact. Then there’s impacts as to what the field will look like with respect to people on the field. Will we have cheerleaders? Will we allow bands? How will people enter the stadium? We’ve modeled different capacities of 25, 30 and 50 percent, which has trickle-down ramifications to the budget and then the payout.”

Kickoff is less than two months away and virtually nothing is decided, including whether this has all been a wasted effort.

“There’s increased costs of potentially masks for everyone that attends the games,” he said. “So there’s a myriad of things and all with the hope that in late July, the Big 12, ACC and SEC decide to play more than just conference games, because if they decide to just play conference games, then all that work is for naught. Because we won’t be able to put on the Chick-fil-A Kickoff games.”

There’s also the possibility that the conferences decide to push the start of the season into October or later. Should that happen, Stokan envisions the Chick-fil-A games taking place. They’ll just need to fit into the schedules of the other Mercedes-Benz Stadium tenants. That means they may not actually be kickoff games anymore but rather mid- or late-season contests.

“We don’t know what the conferences are going to do,” Stokan said. “If they pushed back, would they start with conference games or the nonconference games? We just don’t know. That’s one of the things you build contingencies on contingencies. If they go in this direction, we have to do this. So we’re waiting until the end of July. Once we know, we can pull off whatever model we have to pull off.”

Still, Stokan is confident that we’ll have football — perhaps delayed — in the fall and that his three games will all be played. He also is confident that the teams and conferences involved still have the appetite to play those games.

“I think all three conferences, in our conversations with them, they’d like to play the full schedule of 12 games,” he said. “They’re also aware though that they may not be able to do that, due to potential testing issues or wanting some flexibility that if a (conference) game gets canceled, to have an open date to play that game.”

In the meantime, Stokan and the rest of his Peach Bowl staff are planning and waiting, the tail on the dog, hoping they get the opportunity to wag in front of the nation — three times in eight days.

“We just don’t know,” he said. “So we’ll wait.”