Atlanta Professional Soccer: Who Knew?

Sports historians date a form of the game of soccer, or football as the rest of the world calls it, to China about 2,000 years ago.  The first recorded sighting of the game in Atlanta came in 1912 when amateur players gathered at Piedmont Park to play.  Leagues began to form in the 1920s and 1930s and Emory University started the first collegiate program in 1958. The game remained secondary to other sports until 1966.  During that year the World Cup in England sparked worldwide interest in soccer and professional sports finally came to Atlanta with the inaugural seasons of the Braves and Falcons.  In fact, Braves Vice President Dick Cecil led the charge to bring a team to Atlanta Stadium because of the hope of additional revenue that the game could produce.   Cecil, with the blessing of other Braves owners, purchased a team to begin play in 1967 during the initial season of the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL). The seeds of professional soccer in Atlanta were planted at this point.

One of Cecil’s first hires proved to be a home run when Phil Woosnam took over as general manager and coach.  Woosnam had played the game at the highest levels with English powers West Ham and Aston Villa.  With that pedigree, Woosnam knew the type of athlete he wanted in Atlanta and with the help and resources of Cecil, the two scoured Europe, Africa and the Caribbean to sign players for the new team, which took the name “Chiefs” because of its affiliation with the Braves.  After player tryouts at Emory, the Chiefs’ training facility, Woosnam settled on the final roster for the season.  The Chiefs finished with a 9-10-12 record and finished fourth in the East Division.  Attendance for the first year was almost 7,000 a game.  After the 1967 season the NPSL merged with the United Soccer Association to form the North American Soccer League (NASL).

Arguably, the pinnacle of professional soccer in Atlanta came in 1968.  The Chiefs began play in March and battled into September, finishing the regular season with an 18-6-7 record. The club then dispatched Cleveland and San Diego in the playoffs to claim the NASL championship. Yes, the Chiefs won the city’s first professional sports championship.

However, three brushes with international royalty may have been more exciting than the league championship.  First, the English Premier League champion Manchester City came to Atlanta Stadium in May.  Before more than 23,000 fans, the Chiefs shocked Manchester City and the world by winning 3-2.  Angry and embarrassed, Manchester players and management demanded a rematch.  A month later, the two teams met again before almost 26,000 patrons.  Proving the first outcome was no fluke, the Chiefs beat the lordly English team once again, 2-1.  All the English players could offer as an excuse after their second defeat was the Atlanta heat.

Emboldened by their European conquests, the Chiefs convinced the Santos Football Club of Brazil to play a match at the end of August.  Santos had a young star on the team by the name of Pele.  Before almost 27,000 delirious soccer nuts, Pele and Santos put on a show.  Behind the superstar’s three goals, Santos brought the Chiefs back to earth with a resounding 6-2 thrashing of the home team.  Still, the 1968 Chiefs finished 2 and 1 in international contests and won their league championship.  Unfortunately, the club could not sustain the momentum.

The Chiefs played before modest crowds of 3,000 to 5,000 fans from 1969 through 1972 and could not secure another championship.  At the end of the ’72season, Tom Cousins and the Hawks’ ownership bought the team. The Chiefs became the Atlanta Apollos and played at Bobby Dodd Stadium on the Georgia Tech campus for the 1973 season.  After one season, the franchise folded.  Yet, the Chiefs would re-emerge behind Ted Turner.

Turner purchased the Atlanta Braves in 1976 and Dick Cecil remained with the organization.  NASL began a comeback in the late 1970s when the New York Cosmos lured such international stars as Pele to compete for the team.  Turner and Cecil purchased NASL’s Colorado Caribous in August 1978 and the new team, renamed the Chiefs, began play in Atlanta Stadium during the 1979 season.  The team struggled on the field and with attendance through 1981, when the franchise folded.  The Chiefs also participated in NASL’s winter indoor league during the 1979-80 and 1980-81 seasons in the Omni.  Attendance for the indoor games was better than the league average but the combined revenue for the indoor and outdoor seasons could not save the team.

Professional soccer in Atlanta witnessed an array of teams dribble in and out of the city over the next 35 years.  The Georgia Generals played one season in 1982 before folding.  Seven years later, the Atlanta Attack played in an indoor league from 1989-1991 before moving to Kansas City.  From 1991-1996, the Atlanta Magic played indoors with the United States Indoor Soccer League and won three championships.  The team also participated three seasons in the league’s outdoor version. Keeping with Atlanta soccer tradition, the Magic folded after the 1995-96 indoor season.

The Atlanta Ruckus began play in the outdoor American Professional Soccer League (APSL) in 1995.  The APSL renamed itself the A-League in 1996 and the league took over operations of the Ruckus following that season.  In 1998, the team found new owners, who changed the team name to the Silverbacks in honor of Willie B., a silverback gorilla at the Atlanta Zoo.

The Silverbacks continued to play in the United Soccer League before moving to the new North American Soccer League for the 2010 season.  The team folded in 2016 but re-emerged as an entrant in the National Premier Soccer League for the 2017 season.

Women’s professional soccer waltzed into Atlanta in the form of the Atlanta Beat. They played in the Women’s United Soccer Association from 2001-03, before the league folded and again in the Women’s Professional Soccer league from 2009-11, before that league folded.

Even with professional teams coming and going, Atlanta has demonstrated a passion for soccer.  Atlanta boasts a diverse population of over 6.5 million people, many of whom are passionate about the game.  When soccer matches involving international teams came to the Georgia Dome in recent years, fans packed the building.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank realized the passion for soccer in Atlanta and purchased a Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise for the city in 2014.  In its inaugural season in 2017, Atlanta United FC leads North America’s highest ranked professional league in attendance.

Will the passion for Atlanta United continue as the seasons accumulate or will the franchise fade away into oblivion like so many of its Atlanta predecessors?  As Dick Cecil stated in 2013, “Atlanta is a big-event town.  They like the big event, they like to see winners…It (Atlanta United) will be successful at first. But you have to work it (to maintain the market share).”

From its auspicious start in 1968 with the Chiefs through the Dark Ages of the 1970s-2000s to the Renaissance with Atlanta United, professional soccer in Atlanta has survived.  The bet here is that professional soccer will thrive and flourish in this diverse city for years to come.  A-T-L!  A-T-L! A-T-L!

 

 

Podcast on Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Courtesy of Michael Barera

 

Put this in your web browser–http://www.stadiumsusa.com/radioshow–then scroll down to the May 1 show once on the site.

 

 

 

 

 

The Beginnings and the Traditions of the Kentucky Derby

Photo Courtesy of Velo Steve

Photo Courtesy of Velo Steve

It is known as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.”  Thousands gather at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky on the first Saturday in May every year to watch “The Run for the Roses.”  Women wear their finest clothes, accessories, and hats. Spectators sip on Mint Juleps and eat burgoo.  A band plays “My Old Kentucky Home” before the event. This can only be the Kentucky Derby, a horse race that has run on Kentucky soil since 1875.  The race has the distinction of the longest running sporting event in America and has not missed a year, even during World Wars I & II.  Let’s take a look at how this race came to be and some of the traditions of one of the greatest international sporting events.

Meriwether Lewis Clark, grandson of William Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition, traveled to Europe in 1872.  While in England, Clark witnessed the Epsom Derby, a one mile and a half horse race.  Afterwards, Clark made his way to Paris where he met a group of horse racing fans called the French Jockey Club.  This club organized and ran the Grand Prix de Paris, the most famous horse race in France at the time.  Clark’s experiences in England and France fueled a desire for a similar race in his home state of Kentucky.

Soon after his return to the Bluegrass state, Clark met with John and Henry Churchill, two of his uncles.  The uncles gave Clark land near Louisville to build a racing facility.  In order to raise funds for the construction of the facility, Clark organized the Louisville Jockey Club (LJC), a group of local race fans.  Clark and the LJC raised the funds to build a race track and the first Kentucky Derby, named after the Epsom race, took place on May 17, 1875.  About 10,000 spectators saw Aristides finish first out of 15, three-year-old thoroughbred horses racing for one and a half miles.  Clark limited the race to three-year-old horses because this was the tradition of the great European races such as the Epsom Derby and the Grand Prix de Paris.  European horse enthusiasts believed the three-year-old horses comprised the best group of racers because they were physically mature enough for high speed around a track and still raw enough to offer the element of surprise so essential to wagering.  Horses develop full physical maturity at age four and at that time it would be clear which horses were dominant and which were not.  So horses four years and older lacked the element of surprise necessary for wagering.

The race track became known as “Churchill Downs” in 1883, and the legendary Twin Spires became a Derby fixture in 1895.  Beginning in 1896 the race became the mile and a quarter competition that it is today.  Racing officials believed a mile and a half distance too long for three-year-old thoroughbreds to run in May.  Also that year, Derby winner Ben Brush became the first victor to receive a floral arrangement of roses, white and pink.  The red rose became the official flower of the Derby in 1904, but the first horse to receive the now-famous garland of 554 red roses was Burgoo King in 1932.

Regret became the first filly to win the Derby in 1915, while Sir Barton, in 1919, won the Derby then became the first horse to win the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing—the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.  Bill Corum, a sports columnist for the New York Evening Journal and the New York Journal-American, used the phrase “Run for the Roses” for the first time in 1925.  The first Saturday in May became the permanent date for the Derby in 1931, and in 1940, New Orleans Times-Picayune writer Bill Keefe described the Derby for the first time as, “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.”

Diane Crump took the reins as the first female jockey in 1970, finishing 15th out of 18 horses in the field.  Finally, Secretariat recorded the fastest time in Derby history in 1973 with a 1:59:40 finish on the way to the Triple Crown.

Certainly spectators watching Secretariat’s historical run enjoyed many of the Derby traditions, including Mint Juleps.  The official drink of the Derby consists of bourbon, mint and sugar.  Fans may have also been eating a bowl of burgoo, a thick stew of beef, chicken, pork and vegetables.  While sipping Mint Juleps and eating burgoo, many of the ladies in the audience undoubtedly wore lavish outfits with large hats.  Of course, while Secretariat paraded before the grandstands before the race, fans heard the University of Louisville band’s rendition of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.”

The 143nd version of “The Run for the Roses” or “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” takes place on May 6.  If you can’t be at Churchill Downs, celebrate William Clark’s brainchild somewhere with at least a Mint Julep and a bowl of burgoo.  Big hats, red roses, and a CD of “My Old Kentucky Home” are optional.

Ted Williams: Hall of Fame Fly Fisherman

Ted_Williams_BBall_Digest_May_1949_raw

You may know Ted Williams as the Hall of Fame (inducted in 1966) left fielder who played for the Boston Red Sox from 1939-1942 and 1946-1960. If so, you probably know Williams was a 17-time All-Star, two-time winner of the American League (AL) Most Valuable Player Award, six-time AL batting champion, two-time Triple Crown Winner (batting average, home runs and runs batted in), and the last man to bat over .400 for a season–.406 in 1941. You probably also know that he served in the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps during World War II and flew as a Marine pilot during the Korean War. Finally, you may know that Williams managed the Washington Senators/Texas Rangers franchise from 1969-1972.

Williams passed away in 2002, but if he were alive today, he would certainly tell you that baseball was only his second favorite pastime. Fly fishing was the sport he truly loved. “The Kid,” or “The Splendid Splinter,” as Williams was known during his baseball years, became an avid and expert fly fisherman and deep-sea angler during his baseball career.

John Underwood co-authored a book with Williams entitled Ted Williams Fishing “The Big Three,” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982). Underwood wrote that Williams would fish anywhere, any time. He caught black marlin in New Zealand and tiger fish in the Zambezi River in Mozambique, and he caught these and other fish with different kinds of tackle, in and on all types of water. Underwood described very nicely what it was like to fly fish with Williams.

“To fish with Williams and emerge with your sensitivities intact is to undertake the voyage between Scylla and Charybdis. It is delicate work, but it can be done, and it can be enjoyable. It most certainly will be educational. An open boat with The Kid just does not happen to be the place for one with the heart of a fawn or the ear of a rabbit. Even his friends called him the Captain Queeg of fishing. There are four things to remember: one, he is a perfectionist; two, he is better at it than you are; three, he is a consummate needler; and four, he is in charge. He brings to fishing the same hard-eyed intensity, the same brooding capacity for scientific inquiry, he brought to hitting a baseball” (Underwood, p. 19).

According to Underwood, Williams believed there were three fish worthy of any true sportsman—tarpon, bonefish, and Atlantic salmon. Considered by Williams the triple crown of fishing, he had caught and released over 1,000 of each by 1982. After Williams retired, he spent time between a home along the Miramichi River in east-central New Brunswick and a home in Islamorada, Florida. Williams spent June to October fishing for Atlantic salmon in Canada and the rest of the year angling for tarpon and bonefish in Florida.

Williams’ favorite spots for catching tarpon were around Islamorada south to Key West, at Homosassa Springs north of Tampa, and around Boca Grande just north of Fort Myers. Nine out of ten times he used a fly rod to catch tarpon.   Williams shared his secrets with Underwood on fly fishing for tarpon.

“I put at least 200 yards of backing on the reel, braided Dacron testing out  to 30 pounds. I tie that to 90 feet of No. 12 fly line with a whip finish. Then I tie on a six-foot butt leader of 60-pound of monofilament with a nail knot. I make a perfection loop the diameter of a pencil on the other end and tie it to the strength measure, a two-foot tippet of 15-pound mono, a Bimini twist loop tied on both ends. I tie to the perfection loop with a clinch knot, going through the bottom and back through the top with a double barrel knot. Then I tie the bottom end of the leader through a loose knot on my 100-pound shock tippet and tighten that down against the Bimini twist. Then I tie the tippet with three half hitches and a whip finish of four wraps. I tie the lure on with a perfection loop” (Underwood, p. 40).

Williams suggested that a fisherman should have several spares in case a line breaks or if he just wanted to change lures. His final advice was that all rigs have at least 15 pound test line. According to Williams, this will be light enough to enhance the sport of the catch but strong enough for the heavy drag from a powerful tarpon. He found the best time to catch tarpon around Islamorada was mid-April to mid-June.

The bonefish, pound for pound, was the toughest fish in the ocean, Williams claimed. His favorite spots for catching bonefish were in the Bahamas, the Marquesas Islands, and around the Florida Keys, and he did so in mid-March through May. To catch bonefish, Williams generally used spinning tackle but would use a fly rod from time to time. When he did, he used a nine foot, three-and-three-quarter ounce graphite fly rod. On the rod he put a minimum of 150 yards of Dacron backing, which tested at 30 pounds, and used a 12-foot tapered leader with a 10-pound tippet, three feet long. Williams generally used weedless hooks. According to Williams, bonefish are indiscriminate eaters, so he would use lures with multi-colored tips. In particular, Williams stated he was successful using orange and pink bucktail jigs. His advice for fishing for bonefish is to be cautious because the fish are nervous and wary and to be very careful handling and working the lure. Retrieving too quickly is the number one error in bonefish fishing, according to Williams.

Williams called the Atlantic salmon “the greatest of game fish” (Underwood, p. 116). He judged fish by their fighting ability and claimed that the tarpon was “a more spectacular fish, an eager, tackle-busting fish that bends hooks and breaks lines. The salmon doesn’t always fight like that but he fights. No fish makes a more impressive first run than a bonefish. The salmon doesn’t always run like that but he runs. I’ve had a twelve-pound salmon that would run as long as any twelve-pound bonefish and jump as much as any tarpon and take me a quarter mile downstream doing it” (Underwood, p. 118). Williams’ favorite spots to catch Atlantic salmon included the north shore of the St. Lawrence River in Canada, the Restigouche River in New Brunswick and the Miramichi River in New Brunswick. Williams’ home was located near Blackville on the Miramichi, where he fished for salmon generally from June into October.

An eight-and-a-half-foot graphite rod that weighed around three ounces was the weapon of choice for Williams when he battled the salmon. On the rod he used No. 8 to No. 9 shooting fly line with a six- to eight-pound leader and tapered the nylon leader with a 40-pound butt down to ten or eight pounds, depending on whether he used a six- or eight-pound tippet. Williams used blood knots to taper the leader and generally used small hooks. His favorite flies were the Black Does and the Conrad.

Whether fishing for tarpon, bonefish, Atlantic salmon, or anything else that moved in the water, Williams generally hit a home run. His fishing prowess earned him a spot in the International Game Fish Association’s Fishing Hall of Fame in 2000. He became one of only three athletes to be inducted into two professional halls of fame–Jim Brown (Pro Football Hall of Fame and Lacrosse Hall of Fame) and Carl Hubbard (Baseball Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame). Williams also raised millions of dollars for cancer care and research through the Jimmy Fund. His overall contributions to his fellow man through athletics and charity work prompted President George H. W. Bush to award Williams the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991. While Williams would agree that all of the accolades bestowed upon him were magnificent, you must know by now that nothing meant more to him than fly fishing for tarpon, bonefish, and Atlantic salmon near his homes in Islamorada and along the Miramichi River.

History of Little League Baseball and Softball

800px-LIttle_League_baseball,_May_2009

The smell of fresh cut grass, the laughter of children, the ping of the bat, and the screaming emanating from the parents can mean only one thing: Little League baseball and softball are in full swing! The exact date that baseball became a game is unknown. According to “littleleague.org,” children began playing the game the same time that adults picked up a bat and ball. Members of the Continental Army played a version of the game at Valley Forge, according to the site. No data exists confirming that George Washington had a 100 mph fastball or could hit 600 foot home runs! I mean, after all, this is the same man who threw a silver dollar over the Potomac River. Sorry, I digress.

Many baseball historians cite the first organized baseball game as taking place on June 19, 1846 at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey between the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club and the New York Baseball Club. The Knickerbockers lost 23-1 in four innings.

Soldiers on both sides during the American Civil War played the game to pass the time between battles. The first professional franchise, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, began play in 1869. However, leagues for children were not documented until the 1880s. In New York, some children’s leagues became affiliated with adult leagues but did not thrive. More often, kids could be seen in the streets or on sandlots playing the game with broken equipment such as re-taped bats and balls. Such was the kids’ game until the 1920s when the American Legion established a league for teen-age boys that still exists today.

The organized game for younger kids can find its roots in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in the late 1930s. Carl Stotz often played baseball with his nephews and wanted an organized program for the younger kids. Along with his nephews and some of the other neighborhood children, Stotz experimented with different types of equipment and field dimensions. In 1939, Stotz and some of his adult family members formed an organized league with three teams. Stotz’s vision was to provide a means to teach the virtues of sportsmanship, fair play and teamwork to the town’s boys. The league had no official name but the players played with equipment and on a field suited more to their size.

After conversations with friends in the community, Stotz named his three-team organization: Little League. He enlisted some of the local merchants to sponsor the teams so that the kids could have the proper equipment and uniforms.

In subsequent years, Little League Baseball programs sprang up across the United States and in many countries across the world. Little League Baseball boasts the world’s largest organized youth sports program, and this program can be found in all 50 states and in more than 80 countries. Each year in August, 11-12 year old boys (sometimes girls) on teams from the United Sates and across the globe compete for about ten days in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania in the Little League World Series.  Teams from the United States compete in one division while teams from across the globe compete in an international division.  The division winners play one game for the right to be called Little League World Series champions.

Little League Softball does not have quite the history of Little League Baseball but the participants are no less competitive. According to Barbara Sorensen in an article for “livestrong.com,” the game of softball originated in the late 1880s in Chicago as mainly an indoor alternative for baseball players trying to stay in shape during the cold Chicago winters. The game moved to the outdoors in warmer weather. The first women’s team appeared in the city in 1895; however, the sport would not be widely accepted until the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, where more than 350,000 people observed individuals playing the game.

The game evolved into the more competitive fast pitch version of today. The fields are smaller than baseball fields with the bases only 60 feet apart instead of the  90 feet in baseball, and the ball is larger than a baseball so that it can be hit more easily. College women can, throwing underhand, reach 75 mph to 80 mph on their pitches.

The Softball Little League originated in 1984 and today more than 360,000 participants play on more than 24,000 teams in 24 countries across the world. Its principles are similar to those of Little League Baseball: promote teamwork and sportsmanship, strengthen player self-esteem and develop leaders.

Like its baseball brothers, the Little League Softball World Series takes place every year in August for 11-12 year old girls on teams from across the United States and the world.  Under the softball format, United States teams and international teams are divided into two divisions, no separate U.S. and international divisions exist.  After a series of games involving all the teams, the top four seeds from each division play a single elimination tournament to determine the Little League Softball World Series champion.   Portland, Oregon provides first class hospitality for the games.

Whether the game involves Little League Baseball or Little League Softball, the participants offer much enthusiasm, fun and entertainment. Nothing exemplifies the pure love of the game than the boys and girls of baseball and softball. The only issue involves putting them to bed at night following the post-game sugar rush from the concession stand. Oh, to be a kid again!

Is Atlanta a Bad Sports Town?

              Courtesy of Daniel Mayer

For years, members of the national media have accused Atlanta of being a bad sports town.  Their definition seems strictly based on professional sports (the four major sports: football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey) and the lack of sell outs or near sell outs for Falcons, Braves and Hawks games.  These media naysayers also love to point out that Atlanta has lost two National Hockey League franchises.  Their definition of a sports town does not include college sports, sports participation per capita, or hosting sports events.  However, my definition does.  This article will attempt to define Atlanta as a sports town.  I will use facts as much as possible to support my statements but sometimes my points will be based on observations developed as a 45+ year Atlanta resident and sports fan.  Let’s examine Atlanta as a sports town using the variables of sports participation, hosting sports events, college sports, and professional sports.

City sports participation per capita must be one variable to consider.  Actual numbers are unavailable, but in Atlanta, people play and watch sports from the earliest days they can walk until well into their twilight years.  Soccer, baseball, softball, karate, football, basketball, wrestling, swimming, running, tennis, golf, lacrosse, ice hockey and horseback riding are all examples of sports offered in the Atlanta metro area at six years of age or younger. This is by no means an exhaustive list. The point is Atlantans become involved in sports at an early age, especially outdoor sports because of the temperate weather.  Atlanta boys and girls continue to participate in sports well into adulthood.  For example, the Atlanta area, according to golfadviser.com, lists well over 100 golf courses that offer year-round golf to players of all skill levels.  For tennis lovers, the United States Tennis Association Atlanta Chapter has the largest number of adult and junior team tennis programs in the country.  The Atlanta Track Club has a membership of over 27,000 and hosts more than 30 events a year.

You can drive or walk anywhere in the metro area and see people of all ages participating in a sport they love. While sports per capita participation must be one variable of a sports town’s measure, others must be considered.

Hosting sporting events has long been a point of pride for Atlantans.  The city hosted the 1996 summer Olympic Games.  Only Los Angeles and St. Louis can make that distinction among American cities.  Atlanta has also hosted two Super Bowls (one more in 2019), four National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Basketball Final Fours (another in 2020), 23 Southeastern Conference football championship games (current contract runs through 2026), 49 Peach Bowls (next year’s Peach Bowl will host the College Football Playoff title game), 47 Peachtree Road Races (considered the largest 10-kilometer race in the world), and 16 Tour Championships (the Professional Golf Association’s end of season tournament).  Additionally, the city has hosted two Major League Baseball All-Star games, one National Hockey League All-Star game, and two National Basketball Association All-Star games.  Furthermore, the city has hosted numerous other professional and amateur golf events, professional car races, international soccer matches, professional tennis tournaments, and national/international amateur Olympic sports tournaments.  Few cities in the world can match Atlanta’s resume when it comes to hosting sports events.

As for college sports, this has always been a passion for Atlantans, especially college football.  Until the mid-1960s, the city had no professional sports, only college sports.  Atlanta residents flock to games all over the Southeast on autumn Saturdays:  to Athens for University of Georgia games, Auburn for Auburn University games, Knoxville for University of Tennessee games, Columbia for University of South Carolina games, Clemson for Clemson University games, Tuscaloosa for University of Alabama games and so on. Sell outs are the norm.

Fans often pay thousands of dollars just for the right to buy season tickets, and weddings are rarely scheduled in the fall for fear that no one would attend.  College football is a religion in the South and Atlanta is in the thick of it all.  Chick-fil-A sponsors at least one game per year in Atlanta to kick off the season, the city hosts the aforementioned SEC Championship games, and the Peach Bowl is part of the College Football Playoff rotation.  Furthermore, the College Football Hall of Fame resides in Atlanta.  Arguably, no city in the United States has the passion for college football that Atlanta does.

While college football reigns supreme over other college sports, Atlantans support basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis, golf, lacrosse, track and field, gymnastics and just about any sport associated with their alma mater.  Going back to their college for a sports event has been a staple of Atlantans since the early 20th century, which leads to the final variable associated with the definition of a sports town—professional sports.

Professional sports came to Atlanta with the Falcons and the Braves in 1966, the Hawks in 1968, the Flames in 1972 and the Thrashers in 1999.  The combined seasons for the five teams amount to around 170.  At this point (the Falcons may bring home a title with a win in Super LI), the teams have won one championship—the 1995 Braves.  A lack of championships will not endear fans to a team, in my humble opinion.  Professional sports in cities in the Northeast and Midwest have fans that live and die with their teams.  These teams have been around much longer than Atlanta teams and have won championships.  Again, championships produce diehard fans.  The major exception to that would be the Chicago Cubs.  Their fans supported them even though the Cubs had not won a title in over a hundred years.  Of course, the Cubs finally won a title this past season.  However, the general rule is that championships create a loyal fan base.

The national media chastises Atlanta fans for not supporting the local teams.  They point to a lack of sell outs for the Falcons, Hawks and Braves, even when the teams are having winning seasons.  Atlanta fans are fickle when it comes to the pro teams.  I argue that when the teams are winning the fans turn out to support them.  The 2016 Falcons averaged about 70,000 per game, around 98% capacity.  Yet, when the Falcons are having losing seasons, attendance drops off.  That is the same for the Hawks and the Braves.  When the teams are having winning seasons and they look like they will make the playoffs, fans will come to the games.  If not, the fans will choose to spend their entertainment money elsewhere.

Braves fans, in particular, have been skewered in the media.  The Braves won 14 division titles but only one World Series, the last World Series appearance came in 1999.  Fans came out to the ballpark in droves during the 1990s but would not sell out playoff games in the Wild Card or Division rounds as the seasons progressed.  The fans were waiting to see if the Braves reached the league championship series.  Frankly, Braves fans were spoiled.  They reached the playoffs every year baseball was played from 1991 to 2005.  This same phenomenon happened in New York with Yankees fans in the 1950s.  Even though the playoffs consisted of just the World Series back then, Yankee Stadium did not sellout for every game.  The Yankees participated in seven World Series in the 1950s.  So boredom with winning does exist.

The Braves have not won a playoff series since 2001, and the fans have not bought every ticket to every playoff game since then.  My guess though is that with the new stadium, SunTrust Park, opening in a few months and a team that will compete for a playoff spot, the fans will return.

To be honest, Atlanta sports fans do not support the pro teams as in other cities.  Part of that may be the transient nature of the city.  People move to Atlanta from all over the country and bring their allegiances to other teams with them.  Many will move on from Atlanta and the process will start over again.  It also cannot be overstated that winning titles enhances the loyalty of the fan base and Atlanta has but one.

As for the Flames and Thrashers, the Flames probably came to Atlanta a bit early.  The 1970s did not witness the great influx of people from other areas of the country that the 1990s did.  Ice hockey was not a sport southerners understood or participated in with significant numbers as they did with sports such as football and baseball. With the economic woes of the time, Flames owner Tom Cousins had little choice but to sell the team.

However, the Thrashers came to Atlanta when the city had residents originally from hockey towns and youth hockey was thriving.  The problem was the ownership group.  The Atlanta Spirit group bought the Hawks and Thrashers as a package deal from Ted Turner.  The group had very little interest in hockey and refused to put a competitive team on the ice.  Atlanta hockey fans became disinterested with a perpetually losing team and would not support it.  The Spirit group finally sold it to a consortium from Winnipeg.  I firmly believe that if the Thrashers had owners who cared about hockey, the team would still be here today.

When you take into consideration the aforementioned variables, Atlanta is a great sports town.  Atlanta excels in sports participation, hosting sports events and college sports.  The city does not score as high on the professional sports variable, but a few championships would enhance the marks.

Frankly, who cares what the national media think?  Cheers Atlanta!

Peach Bowl History

Courtesy UserB

Courtesy UserB

Atlanta’s Peach Bowl showcased its first game in 1968 and is the fifth oldest college bowl game behind the Rose Bowl (1902), the Orange Bowl (1935), the Sugar Bowl (1935), and the Cotton Bowl (1937).  The Peach Bowl joined the College Football Playoff (CFP) system in 2014 and is one of only six Bowl games that are eligible to host a national semi-final game or the national championship game.  The Peach Bowl is hosting this year the semi-final game between Alabama and Washington. When it’s not hosting the semi-finals or the championship, the Peach Bowl will host two of the highest ranked teams not in one of the four semi-final slots.  The bowl has come a long way since its meager beginnings.

The Peach Bowl originated as a fund-raiser for the Lions Clubs of Georgia but in its early years struggled with attendance, revenue, and bad weather.  The first three games (1968-1970) took place at Georgia Tech’s Grant Field and moved to Fulton County Stadium for the 1971-1992 games.  Since 1993 the Georgia Dome has been home to the Peach Bowl.  The game will move into the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium after the 2017 college football season when the Peach Bowl will host the CFP national championship game.

In a December 14, 2015 article by Corey Clark in the Tallahassee Democrat, Clark spoke with Peach Bowl President and CEO Gary Stokan.  Stokan stated that the bowl game’s Executive Director Dick Bestwick approached the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce after the 1985 game.  Bestwick told officials there that if Atlanta’s business leaders did not support the game through ticket purchases and sponsorships, the bowl would not survive.

With only 18 bowl games in existence at that time, the loss of the Peach Bowl would be a loss to the economic viability and reputation of the city, according to Stokan.  Ron Allen, head of the chamber and CEO of Delta Airlines agreed to support the Peach Bowl and gave a check to Bestwick for $100,000 to put the game on a sound financial foundation.  However, the weather still caused problems for the game until it moved into the Georgia Dome.

After the move to the Georgia Dome, Stokan and Peach Bowl officials brokered an agreement between the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) to play one another in the game and attendance improved.  Beginning with the 1997 game, Chick-fil-A, Inc. became the major sponsor and the bowl game became known as the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.  With the help of Chick-fil-A’s marketing expertise, the game became a sell out every year from 1997-2013.  From 2006-2013, the game shortened its name to the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

However, as part of the agreement with the CFP system, the game reverted back to its original Peach Bowl moniker.  CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock noted that the other bowls in the system—Rose, Cotton, Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta—all carried singular names without a corporate sponsor in the title and therefore, wanted all bowl names to be parallel.  In order to be compliant with the CFP mandate, the Atlanta game changed its name.

From a fund raiser for the Lions Clubs of Georgia to the College Football Playoff system, the Peach Bowl has indeed come a very long way.  Much credit must go to Gary Stokan and his staff and to Chick-fil-A, Inc.

Below are the Peach Bowl records for the current SEC and ACC schools:

SEC                                                                             ACC

Alabama                      0-0                                           Boston College             0-0

Arkansas                     0-0                                           Clemson                         3-5

Auburn                        4-1                                            Duke                               0-1

Florida                         0-2                                           Florida State                 2-2

Georgia                       3-2                                            Georgia Tech                 0-4

Kentucky                    1-1                                             Miami                             2-1

LSU                             5-1                                             North Carolina             2-3

Mississippi                 1-1                                            NC State                        4-3

Miss. State                  1-2                                            Pittsburgh                     0-0

Missouri                      0-0                                           Syracuse                        1-0

South Carolina            0-2                                          Virginia                         2-2

Tennessee                    1-4                                           Virginia Tech                2-2

Texas A&M                  1-0                                           Wake Forest                 0-0

Vanderbilt                   0-0-1

 

SEC Title Game History: Alabama vs. Florida

 

 

sec_new_logo1216The Southeastern Conference (SEC) championship game has occurred every year since 1992. The game matches the East Division winner against the West Division winner, and the victor of this game earns the title of SEC champion for that year. The game has been an economic success for the conference and a television ratings bonanza. Birmingham hosted the game for the first two years and Atlanta has had it ever since, with the current contract running through 2026. The most frequent match up in the game has been the University of Alabama and the University of Florida. The Tide and the Gators have met eight times and will meet for number nine on Saturday. These contests have seen some of the league’s all-time great coaches and players pitted against one another when the stakes were the highest. The following is a brief look at each of the eight games.

The inaugural game in 1992 in Birmingham pitted two future College Football Hall of Fame coaches against the other, Alabama’s Gene Stallings and Florida’s Steve Spurrier. The Gators took an early lead on running back Errict Rhett’s five-yard reception, but the Tide stormed back with 21 unanswered points behind two Derric Lassic runs and a 30-yard Jay Barker to Curtis Brown touchdown pass. The Gators tied the game midway through the fourth quarter on another Errict Rhett touchdown, but Bama defensive back Antonio Langham intercepted a Shane Matthews pass and returned it 27 yards for the winning score in the 28-21 Tide victory. Alabama completed an undefeated season with a resounding 34-13 Sugar Bowl victory over number one-ranked Miami, thereby capturing the national championship.

Alabama and Florida met again in the 1993 SEC title tilt. The Gators gained a measure of revenge with a 28-13 victory. The Gators held a tight 14-13 lead in the third quarter before quarterback Terry Dean hit receiver Jack Jackson for a 43-yard touchdown pass and an eight point lead. The Florida defense throttled the Tide the rest of the way and the Gators tallied one more touchdown for the final score. Florida would then win its first ever Sugar Bowl by destroying West Virginia, 41-7.

Atlanta became the permanent home of the championship game beginning in 1994, but the same two participants hooked up for the third year in a row. Alabama trailed 17-10 at halftime before erupting for two field goals and a Dwayne Rudd 23-yard interception return for a touchdown that gave the Tide a 23-17 lead with just under nine minutes to play. Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel then led the Gators on an 80-yard, 10-play drive culminating with a two-yard Wuerffel to Chris Doering touchdown. The ensuing extra point gave Florida the lead with 5:29 to go in the game. The defense took over from there as the Gators hung on for the 24-23 victory.

The two schools would not meet again in the championship game until 1996, which witnessed the Gators winning a shootout, 45-30, on the way to their first national title. Danny Wuerffel threw for over 400 yards and six touchdowns against an Alabama defense that came into the game ranked sixth in the country in total defense. Wide receiver Reidel Anthony caught 11 of Wuerffel’s passes for 171 yards and three touchdowns. Florida’s victory propelled them to a rematch with arch rival Florida State in the Sugar Bowl for the national title. The Seminoles handed the Gators their only loss of the season, 24-21, but Florida responded with a 52-20 drubbing in the rematch. Wuerffel also won the Heisman trophy that year.

Three years later in 1999, the Tide and Gators met again. While Spurrier remained as Florida’s coach, Mike DuBose was in his third year as the Tide’s leader. Alabama led Florida 15-7 early in the fourth quarter when the Tide erupted for 19 unanswered points. Freddie Milons scored on a 77-yard run and 18 seconds later, Reggie Grimes tallied a 38-yard touchdown after intercepting Jesse Palmer. Alabama added another touchdown later for the final score of 34-7. The Tide defense was the story. Alabama held Florida to 114 total yards, the fewest ever for a Spurrier-coached Florida team. The Tide picked off the Gators four times and did not allow them to convert a third down. Both teams would go on to lose their Bowl games that year.

It would be nine years later until the schools met again. This time, two future Hall of Fame coached squared off, Florida’s Urban Meyer and Alabama’s Nick Saban. The 2008 game marked the first time in SEC history that the number 1 and number 2 ranked teams in the nation (Alabama, 1 and Florida, 2) squared off. With Alabama leading 20-17 in the fourth quarter, Florida scored two touchdowns for a 31-20 victory. The clinching score came on a five-yard touchdown pass from Tim Tebow to Riley Cooper with 2:50 to go in the game. Heisman Trophy winner Tebow would lead Florida to the national championship with a victory over Oklahoma, 24-14, in the Orange Bowl and a 13-1 final record.

The two teams met once more in the 2009 SEC championship but this time Saban and the Tide prevailed 32-13 over Meyer and the Gators. Again the teams came into the game ranked number one and number two in the country (Florida, 1 and Alabama, 2), and this time both teams were undefeated, an SEC Championship game first. Led by quarterback Greg McElroy, running back Mark Ingram, and receiver Julio Jones, the Tide compiled 490 yards of offense against a Florida defense that was giving up only 230 yards per game. Alabama finished the season undefeated and won the national championship with a 37-21 win over Texas in the Rose Bowl.

Last year the Tide and Gators met for the eighth time in the championship game.  Saban led his Number 2-ranked Tide against first-year Gator coach and former Saban assistant Jim McElwain.   The teams played a sluggish first half with Alabama taking a 12-7 lead, but in the second half the Tide exploded for two touchdowns and a field goal to ice the game, 29-15.  Derrick Henry broke Herschel Walker’s SEC record for rushing yards in a season with 189 yards for the game and 1,986 for the season.  The Tide then won the second College Football Playoff series with a thrashing of Michigan State in the semi-finals and a thrilling win over Clemson in the title game.

Saban and McElwain meet again on Saturday in what seems to be the schools’ annual play date.  Prognosticators give the Gators very little chance in the game as the undefeated Tide enters Number 1 in the polls and over a three-touchdown favorite.    Stranger things have happened, but the Tide have the look of a fierce pack of pachyderms set on eating Gator meat and anything else that gets in their way.  The SEC championship game is always a donnybrook with some of the most passionate fans in all of sports.  Cheers to the Tide, the Gators, and the great game of college football!

 

How Atlanta Became the Host City for the 1996 Olympic Games: Part 2, Winning the IOC Nomination

399px-1996_Atlanta_Olympic_Games_Torch_(Replica)

With the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) nomination secured, Billy Payne, Andrew Young and the Georgia Amateur Athletic Foundation (GAAF) turned their attention to the international bid. In May of 1988, Payne learned his competition for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) bid:  Athens, Greece; Belgrade, Yugoslavia; Manchester, England; Melbourne, Australia; and Toronto, Canada.

Early in the international bid, Atlanta had two issues against them.  The first was that many Olympic officials felt it was too soon to award the Olympics to another American city since Los Angeles  hosted the Games in 1984.  The second issue was that the 1996 Games would be the centennial of the modern Games and many officials believed the natural host should be Athens.

Payne and his team quickly developed a plan to counteract these issues.  The plan centered on the diversity of the American population, the country’s regions and overall size, and the number of times the Games had been hosted on American soil—three (1904, 1932 and 1984) versus fourteen in Europe.  Also, Los Angeles was the only city in the world to bid on the 1984 Olympics and Payne argued that the IOC had not actually selected an American city for almost 60 years.

With the plan finalized, Payne reverted back to his personal touch strategy that worked so well in capturing the USOC bid.  Charles Battle and Robert Rearden Jr. began traveling to IOC members and international sports officials around the world to deliver personally Payne’s plan. Early visits were to IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, Ecuador, Canada, Malta, and Mexico.  With Young’s participation in Atlanta’s bid and his international reputation, doors were opened to the GAAF volunteers that may not have been without his involvement.

As Atlanta’s international bid process unfolded, the GAAF began to receive support from various sources.  Federal, state, and local government began to provide financial support.  The Atlanta Chamber of Commerce offered the full support of its Atlanta Sports Council group to host amateur athletic events to strengthen a weakness noted by the USOC.  Atlanta would host over 30 such amateur events by the time the IOC awarded the Games to the city.

A group of 20 Atlanta officials attended the Seoul Olympics in 1988 in order to meet additional IOC members and garner further information about hosting an Olympics.  Once again, Payne employed his personal touch strategy by converting a traditional Korean house into an Atlanta home complete with a staff and southern menu. The house entertained IOC members daily for lunch and intimate dinners with the goals of developing friendships and strengthening communication.

While in Seoul, Payne and Young gave their first official presentation to the IOC Executive Board.  Payne emphasized that Atlanta felt an obligation to bring the Games to the east coast of North America and near the Caribbean, which had never hosted the Olympics.  Young spoke about Atlanta’s abilities as a potential host city and stressed that the most essential reason that he wanted the Games in Atlanta was to inspire youth.  The Atlanta contingent left Seoul having spoken to 88 out of the 90 IOC members and obtaining valuable information necessary to prepare the official IOC Bid.

Samaranch agreed to visit Atlanta in February 1989 and before his visit the GAAF met to assess its organizational structure, goals and strategies.  This meeting prompted the formation of a 14-member Executive Board and a new name, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG).  Andrew Young became ACOG’s chairman; Billy Payne, the president and chief executive officer; Gerald Bartels, the president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, was named secretary; and Bob McCullough of Arthur Andersen Company took the title of treasurer.  An Advisory Council was also formed, representing a wide range of Georgians, to support the ACOG.  Not long after, the group announced its official Olympic theme, “Atlanta and the Olympics: Yes! Partners with the World!”

Samaranch’s visit to Atlanta went well and he praised Atlanta’s Olympic team for their work while speaking before the Georgia General Assembly.  He encouraged the ACOG to host as many IOC members as possible so that they could see first-hand Atlanta’s preparation for the Games.

As Samaranch flew back to Lausanne, the ACOG stepped up their efforts.  The group opened an office in midtown where they began the preparation of the Bid documents to the IOC that would be due in one year.  Through local sports experts, volunteer committees began to document how the city would handle the international requirements for each Olympic sport.

The Atlanta business community began to step up by offering free services to the ACOG and over 100,000 people expressed interest in volunteering for the Games even though the Games were still seven years away.  Atlantans began to embrace the Games in earnest.

Playing off the excitement, the ACOG began a public awareness campaign in July 1989. Billboards and banners sprang up all around the city.  With the international press in attendance, the ACOG implemented the Olympic Mile run during the annual July 4 Peachtree Road Race.  More than 40,000 people ran the in the mile run.

With Andrew Young’s words to the IOC Board in Seoul in mind, the ACOG focused on the city’s youth.  After the Road Race, the ACOG introduced the Olympic Day in the School (ODIS) Program.  The program offered curriculum guides to aid teachers with incorporating Olympic values into all subject areas.  The following spring the Georgia Olympic Day provided the opportunity for students from across Georgia to participate in academic and athletic competitions in the style of the Olympics.  Over the seven years of the program, more than one million students participated in the program.  ACOG members encouraged these students to write to IOC members detailing what the Olympics in Atlanta would mean to them.

In late August and early September of 1989, the ACOG unveiled their high-tech presentation tool at the IOC meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Developed with resources from Georgia Tech, the ACOG presented an interactive video that allowed IOC members to fly through three-dimensional areas of Atlanta with computer-generated models of existing and future venues.  This tool would later be credited as one of the reasons Atlanta secured the IOC nomination.  Also in San Juan, the ACOG presented a book to IOC members and the press that offered a description of Atlanta’s strengths, including details of each venue.  The book known as the XXVI Book (because the 1996 Games would be the 26th of the modern era) impressed the international contingent with its quality of design and information.  Payne and company began to produce a “wow” factor that other cities could not imitate.

After San Juan, the unprecedented number of 24 IOC members came to Atlanta to see what the ACOG was touting.  Atlanta volunteers ensured IOC members would not leave Atlanta without positive impressions.  The volunteers led the international delegates on facility tours, to dinners in private homes, to amateur sports competitions, to a cultural festival and to the 5K Run for the Bid. The brainchild of Payne, the 5k event began with IOC members riding an express MARTA train to the starting point.  Upon exiting from the train tunnel, 7,500 runners regaled the members with chants of “We want the Games.”  Most of the IOC members appeared emotionally touched by Atlanta’s enthusiasm for the Games.  The members gave the city high praise for its preparations to date and the overall enthusiasm of the city’s residents.

The ACOG and its volunteers continued to prepare the final Bid document and by February 1990 the completed Bid arrived in Lausanne.  The Bid came in five volumes all describing Atlanta as a modern city with lofty goals and expectations.  The high quality design and expert writing also told the story of the history, culture and pride of the South.  Volume I offered greetings from famous Georgians and Americans.  Volume II discussed Atlanta’s and the South’s history, details of the ACOG’s Cultural Olympiad plans, and a proposed torch relay involving all host cities of the modern Games.  In Volume III, detailed answers were given to the IOC’s requisite 19 questions, including the issues of facilities, financing and security.  Volume IV provided details of all of the sports venues and Volume V offered the ACOG’s plans for handling the media.

The ACOG’s Bid announced $1 billion would be spent on the preparation for and management of the Games, including $418 million of construction.  The construction tab would include an 85,000 seat stadium for athletics, a natatorium, a water polo stadium, a cycling venue, a shooting range and a marina in Savannah.  Also, dormitories for the athletes would be built at a cost of $60 million. The Bid also stated that revenue sources would include broadcast television rights fees, corporate sponsorships (think Coca-Cola), ticket sales, Olympic coins and other merchandise sales.  Additionally, the Bid stipulated that no taxpayer funding would be needed.

Over the next three months, the ACOG maintained it efforts to impress the international group of decision makers.  The group hosted the official site inspection visits by the IOC Study and Evaluation Commission, the Association of International Olympic Federations, and the Association of National Olympic Committees.  The ACOG shrewdly invited IOC members to Atlanta during the spring when the city’s natural beauty comes alive.

As summer approached, the ACOG could boast that Atlanta had now hosted scores of international amateur sports competitions over a two-year period, and gained the support and confidence of all levels of government and the city’s business leaders.  The city now had the infrastructure to handle the Games and the needed venues were well on their way to completion.  The IOC’s final decision would come in September, and the ACOG could only wonder if the members had done enough to gain the nomination. A total of 68 IOC members had visited the city and ACOG members had visited 85 IOC delegates in their countries.  What more could the ACOG do?

In mid-September, 1990, over 300 Atlantans and Georgians traveled to Tokyo for the ACOG’s final presentation and the IOC’s decision.  The group included 58 students, ranging in age from 11 to 18, called the Atlanta Dream Team.  Atlanta was the first of the six cities to present.  The hour long presentation included a film and original song, “The World Has One Dream,” and talks from Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, Governor Joe Frank Harris, Andrew Young, and Billy Payne.  The consistent message was that Atlanta wanted and was ready to host the Centennial Olympic Games.

At the conclusion of the presentations, the IOC members cast their initial ballot.  Belgrade dropped out of the running after the first ballot, Manchester fell out of the running on the second ballot, Melbourne went home after the third, and Toronto failed to make the cut after the fourth.  That left Athens and Atlanta, and of course, Atlanta won the nomination after the fifth ballot.

Payne, Young and the GAAF/ACOG team of volunteers had achieved their goal:  obtaining the 1996 Olympics for Atlanta.  Payne’s personal touch strategy combined with Young’s influence and the meticulous attention to detail by GAAF/ACOG members could not be overcome by the other cities hoping to host the Games.  The Georgia Tech presentation technology and support from Atlantans from all walks of  life provided the icing on the proverbial cake.  Payne’s dream became a reality and the provincial town that embodied the New South would earn the right to sit in the pantheon of international cities.

 

How Atlanta Became the Host City for the 1996 Olympic Games: Part 1, Capturing the USOC Nomination

 

 

399px-1996_Atlanta_Olympic_Games_Torch_(Replica)

With the immortal words from International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Juan Antonio Samaranch on September 18, 1990—“The International Olympic Committee has awarded the 1996 Olympic Games to the city of…Atlanta.”—Atlanta had officially won its bid to host the centennial of the modern Olympic Games.  Billy Payne’s vision had become reality.  He had help, and plenty of it, from a wide assortment of business and political leaders and a throng of volunteers.  The journey was long and arduous but certainly worth it in the long run.

Payne, a real estate attorney, first thought of bringing the Olympic Games to Atlanta in 1987.  He believed that if he had the right help, Atlanta could secure the Games.  He summarized his thought process this way, “If you believe that if you surrounded yourself with enough talent, enough good friends, enough people willing to push or pull all in the same direction, there can be absolutely no limitation on what you can achieve.”

As a first step, Payne formed a non-profit group called the Georgia Amateur Athletic Foundation (GAAF).  This group would be tasked with bringing the Games to Atlanta. Payne also persuaded fishing buddy Pete Candler to join him.  Candler’s relatives played an instrumental role in the founding of the Coca-Cola Company.  Payne then took a leave from his law profession to become a full-time volunteer with the GAAF and also borrowed $1 million from friends using real estate holdings as collateral.  In a short amount of time Payne convinced other friends to join him as volunteers for the campaign.  All had strong leadership skills, influence, and most importantly, contacts, which could aid the effort.  The group became known as the Atlanta Nine.  Besides Candler, the group included Horace Sibley, a partner with powerful law firm King and Spalding and one who also had strong ties to Coca-Cola; Ginger Watkins, known for her work as a charity fund raiser and with the Junior League; Linda Stephenson, also known for her work with the Junior League; Cindy Fowler, who managed an event-organizing business; Tim Christian, a construction company executive; Charles H. Battle Jr., a gregarious Atlanta attorney; Charles Shaffer, another attorney with King and Spalding; and Bobby Rearden Jr., an Atlanta businessman.

As the group moved forward, they realized they needed someone who knew Atlanta but had the respect of influencers nationally and internationally.  Andrew Young, then the mayor of Atlanta, could not have been a better choice.  People from across the globe respected Young for his work as a United States congressman and Ambassador to the United Nations.  He also was a revered leader of the Civil Rights Movement and former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  Young endorsed the GAAF proposal for the Games and would later prove instrumental in winning international support for the Atlanta bid.

With his team in place, Payne directed his attention to the first hurdle: the official United States Olympic Committee’s (USOC) endorsement of Atlanta as the United States representative in the battle for the Games.  Payne developed a personal touch strategy for the GAAF that would carry through the USOC bid process and the international process involving the International Olympic Committee (IOC).  The first example of Payne’s strategy came in September 1987 when GAAF members hand-delivered the formal bid to the USOC offices in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The other 13 United States cities bidding on the Games, including Nashville, San Francisco and Minneapolis mailed their bids.  While there Payne and his associates gave their presentation to the USOC board.  The GAAF produced a video entitled “Live the Dream,” which focused on Atlanta’s enthusiasm for the Games.  The video also delineated Atlanta’s strengths:  the international airport; existing sports venues; the construction of new venues such as a stadium for athletics (track and field), the Georgia Dome for basketball and gymnastics and a natatorium on the campus of Georgia Tech; existing facilities for the athletic village; over 60,000 hotel rooms; an extensive rapid rail and bus transportation system; experience in handling large amounts of people because of Atlanta’s extensive convention experience; and private funding sources through corporate sponsors, television rights, and ticket sales.

Payne’s personal touch strategy manifested itself again when the USOC sent 100 voting members to Atlanta in January 1988 before the official USOC Site Selection Committee’s visit.  The GAAF entertained the voting members in an Atlanta house, where they experienced an elegant and intimate dinner.  When the Site Selection Committee visited in February, the GAAF took the group to all existing facilities, the different sites for the new venues, meetings with local political leaders, and a lunch hosted by the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce attended by prominent business leaders.  Upon leaving Atlanta the Committee told the GAAF that they were impressed with the group’s attention to detail, the overwhelming business and community support, and the overall enthusiasm for the Games.  The only negative cited was the city’s limited amateur athletic experience.

The possibility existed that the USOC would not recommend any city for the 1996 Games because Los Angeles hosted the Olympics in 1984 and the USOC was unsure if any American city could get the international nod so soon after LA.  However in March, the USOC moved forward with the process and cut the field from 14 to 2—Atlanta and Minneapolis.  Payne and the GAAF began preparations for the final presentation to the USOC Executive Board in April in Washington, DC.

The GAAF intensified their lobbying efforts.  They mailed each board member the formal Bid Proposal, hosted members in Atlanta to view competition sites, and met with national and international sports federation officials.  If the GAAF could not meet personally with board members, the group wrote personal notes, made phone calls or both.

Payne further exhibited his personal touch strategy by renting the famous Kalorama mansion in Washington.  By this time, Andrew Young was fully invested in securing the Games for Atlanta, and he, Payne and other GAAF volunteers greeted USOC board members in the mansion while a 10-piece string ensemble entertained them.  The next day, Young, Payne and Georgia Governor Joe Frank Harris reiterated Atlanta’s strengths to the board.

The USOC board carefully considered the city’s organizing ability, enthusiasm for the Games, venues, hotels, large airport, rapid transit system, and the capability of handling thousands of people for the duration of the Games.  These attributes pushed the city ahead of Minneapolis and compelled the USOC board to award their nomination to Atlanta.  Young, Payne and the rest of the GAAF had cleared the first hurdle.  Now they must convince the international community that Atlanta would be a worthy host for the centennial of the modern Olympic Games.