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.

 

Muhammad Ali and Atlanta: A Love Affair for the Ages

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The 1960s may arguably be the most tumultuous decade in American history.  The Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the challenge of established cultural norms and mores converged to produce an explosion that changed America forever.  One man and one city epitomized this convergence in 1970 and afterwards a bond formed between the two that would last for decades.

Cassius Marcellus Clay, an 18 year-old from Louisville, Kentucky, won the gold medal in boxing’s light heavyweight class representing the United States in the 1960 Olympics in Rome.  Four years later, Clay defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world.  Secretly, Clay had converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali 18 days before the fight. When drafted by the United States government in 1967 to fight in the Vietnam War, Ali refused his induction into the army declaring himself as a conscientious objector on the basis of his religious beliefs. The United States government arrested Ali, found him guilty of draft evasion, and sentenced him to five years in prison.  This conviction compelled the-then powerful New York State Athletic Commission and the World Boxing Association to strip Ali of his boxing title.  Ali appealed the draft evasion verdict that would eventually be overturned by the United States Supreme Court in 1971.  However for three years no city in the United States would sanction a fight involving Ali, and he could not fight abroad because the government would not let Ali leave while the case worked its way through the court system.  Ali’s fortunes would begin to change in 1970 when a New York corporate attorney, his father-in-law in Atlanta and a Georgia state senator conspired to set up a fight for Ali in Atlanta.

In a 2011 article in The Georgia Historical Quarterly by Paul Stephen Hudson and Lora Pond Mirza, the authors detail how the fight in Atlanta became a reality. Robert Kassell graduated from Emory University Law School and embarked on a career as a corporate attorney in New York. He also had an interest in promoting a fight for Ali.   Kassell consulted with his father-in-law, Harry Pett, who owned a spice business in Atlanta and a small sports promotion enterprise.  Pett knew he needed political help to get the fight sanctioned in Atlanta and had previously met Leroy Johnson, a Georgia state senator.  Johnson promised Pett that he would obtain a license for Ali to fight in Atlanta.

Although Johnson did not have the fame of other African-American legislators at the time, such as Julian Bond, he was “without peer in Southern black politics,” according to New York Times Magazine writer Stephen Lesher.  Johnson became the first African-American to serve in the Georgia legislature since the Reconstruction Era and earned a reputation for his ability to achieve political initiatives while in office.  In the late 1960s, Johnson assumed more political clout as a leader in the Atlanta Negro Voters League and worked closely with African-American businessman Jesse Hill, then vice president and chief actuary of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company.  The two invested their money in a venture called the House of Sports, Inc., which promoted the fight.  Johnson later stated that his goal with the Ali fight was “to beat the system and say to the world that you cannot do this to a man just because of his color” (Hudson and Mirza, p. 44).

Johnson helped Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, the city’s first Jewish mayor, win the mayoral election by urging African-American voters to cast their ballots for Massell.  Johnson knew the mayor would support him in his efforts to secure the fight.  Massell had served on local draft boards and understood the laws protecting the rights of conscientious objectors.  Massell also believed in the notion that blacks and whites could work together to further the socioeconomic and political viability of the city.  The state of Georgia had no boxing commission at that time, so politics would decide the fate of an Ali fight in Atlanta.  Johnson secured Massell’s support by pledging $50,000 to fund a program that would pay people for giving information that led to drug arrests and convictions, a pet project of Massell.  With the city’s support, Johnson needed to obtain state support before the fight could be arranged.

Governor Lester Maddox had a reputation as a fierce segregationist.  Johnson met with Maddox and told him that Ali deserved another chance.  This appeal struck a nerve with Maddox.  Maddox’s son, Lester Maddox Jr. had recently been arrested and charged with burglary.  The judge in the case gave the governor’s son a second chance by allowing him to avoid jail time.  Maddox acquiesced to Johnson’s desire to stage an Ali fight in Atlanta.

With the fight officially set for October 26, 1970, the promoters for Ali initially approached current heavyweight champion Joe Frazier to be Ali’s opponent, but Frazier had a conflict.  However, Jerry Quarry, Ring magazine’s number one heavyweight contender, agreed to take on the rusty Ali.  Ali trained at Morehouse College to prepare for the contest with Quarry and worked his way to a trim, rock hard 213.5 pounds.

The fight took place with much fanfare on that fateful October evening at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium (now known as Georgia State University’s Dahlberg Hall), where both black and white patrons filled the facility.  African-American celebrities came to watch the re-birth of Ali’s career. The audience included Diana Ross, Hank Aaron, Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, and the Temptations.  Let the record state that Ali scored a technical knockout of Quarry after nine minutes of the third round, but the more important result from the evening was the formation of a bond between Muhammad Ali and the city of Atlanta.

The defeat of Quarry and the Supreme Court decision enabled Ali to return to a boxing career that would last into 1981, when he officially retired.  Ali returned to Atlanta in 1975 to help Mayor Maynard Jackson promote businesses owned by African-Americans in Atlanta.  The two squared off in a charity boxing match that ended when the mayor “knocked out” the reigning heavyweight champion.

When the city suffered through a string of child murders from 1979-1981, Ali offered his help.  The pressure was mounting for the capture of the serial killer. In 1981, Mayor Jackson held a news conference pleading for information from the public that would lead to an arrest.  The mayor offered a reward of $100,000.  Days passed with no new leads.  Ali noticed and called Jackson in the middle of the night and pledged another $400,000 of reward money.  A month later, Atlanta police found and arrested the killer.  While Ali’s money did not lead to the arrest, his magnanimous offer further demonstrated his love and appreciation for the city.

Before a fight in 1980 against Larry Holmes, Ali began showing signs of Parkinson’s syndrome.  He began experiencing vocal stutters and trembling hands.  Ali lost the fight by knock out, and according to Mike Hale in a 2009 article in The New York Times, the beating led to the further development of the disease.  Ali fought once more in 1981 losing a decision to Trevor Berbick.  In 1984, doctors officially diagnosed Ali with Parkinson’s, but it would be 1996 before Atlanta and Ali would share the headlines again.

Preparation for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta was entering the final stages.  Billy Payne, CEO of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, needed to decide on someone to light the Olympic flame to begin the Games officially.  Evander Holyfield, former heavyweight boxing champion and local home-town hero, came to mind quickly.  When Payne suggested Holyfield to NBC executive Dick Ebersol, Ebersol countered with Muhammad Ali.  NBC held the television rights to the 1996 Games and Ebersol wanted someone with global appeal.

Ebersol gave Payne a convincing argument, stating that “…Ali may be, outside of perhaps the pope, the most beloved figure in the world.  In the third world he’s a hero.  In the Muslim world, he’s a hero and a fellow traveler.  To anybody young—just about—in the United States, he’s a man of great moral principle who was willing to go to prison” (Sports Business Journal, by Josh Ourand, May 18, 2015, p. 30).

In Payne’s mind, at the time, Ali was a draft dodger.  Ebersol countered that Ali was a man of conviction, not a draft dodger.  The decision process took about five months before Payne finally agreed that Ali was indeed the best person to light the flame.

On July 19, 1996, Holyfield ran the Olympic torch into Centennial Olympic Stadium and handed it to Janet Evans, an American Olympic swimmer.  Evans eventually handed the torch to…Muhammad Ali.  Ali’s appearance had been a heavily guarded secret between Payne and Ebersol.  Even NBC announcers Dick Enberg and Bob Costas did not know until Ali appeared on screen.  When the spotlight shone on Ali holding the torch, people were in awe: “You could almost hear a global gasp,” according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Steve Hummer.

Ali stood with the torch in his right hand, with his left hand clinched and shaking because of the Parkinson’s disease.  For a few anxious moments, Ali held the flaming torch next to the small plug that would send the flame up the long wire to the Olympic cauldron. The plug would not light.  Ali remained steadfast, undaunted.  Finally, the plug lit and the cauldron burst ablaze.  Ali had once again stood victorious before thousands of fans in Atlanta and millions more across the world.  Payne would later state that while he and Ebersol had put Ali back on the world stage, Ali helped put Atlanta on the world stage.  Ali and Atlanta had once again benefited the other.

From the fight with Quarry in 1970, to the charity fight with Mayor Jackson in 1975, to the reward money in the child murder cases in 1981, to the 1996 Olympics, Ali and Atlanta forged a symbiotic relationship and love affair that lasted until Ali’s death.  From all of us in Atlanta, rest in peace, Champ.

 

Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints Rivalry

 

Atlanta_Falcons_white_wordmark

206px-New_Orleans_Saints.svgThe National Football League (NFL) has its share of rivalries, including Dallas-Washington, Chicago-Green Bay, and Cleveland-Pittsburgh.   Yet arguably the one with the most vitriol between fan bases is the Atlanta-New Orleans rivalry.  At these games, fans have yelled obscenities at the opposing fans, fought opposing fans, and even attempted to urinate on opposing fans. Before looking at some series statistics and a review of some of the games in this blood feud, an explanation of why the rivalry exists is warranted.

The franchises came into the NFL one year apart, Atlanta in 1966 and New Orleans in 1967. Both cities reside in the Deep South and are about seven hours driving time from one another. The teams have played each other twice a year since 1970, except in the strike-shortened 1982 and 1987 seasons. Both have competed in the same divisions in the National Football Conference since 1970. Geographic proximity, twice-a-year contests, and direct competition for division titles and playoff berths tend to produce rivalries.

Atlanta leads the series 49-43, but New Orleans has won 13 out of the last 17 games. The Falcons are 24-21 against the Saints in Atlanta and 25-22, including a playoff game in 1991, in New Orleans and San Antonio (one game in 2005 because of Hurricane Katrina). New Orleans’ longest winning streak is six in the series while Atlanta’s is 10. Both teams have won five division championships, one conference championship, and have appeared in one Super Bowl. New Orleans has one NFL Championship by virtue of its 2010 Super Bowl (XLIV) win over the Indianapolis Colts.

The rivalry has produced some memorable games. In 1970 the two teams were placed in the same division for the first time and the start of two-games-against-the-other every season commenced. The series began to create some bad blood between the two division brothers in 1973 when the Falcons administered the worst Saints defeat in their history with a 62-7 drubbing at the old Tulane Stadium.

Both games in 1978 came down to the wire. With Atlanta trailing New Orleans in the Superdome with 19 seconds left, Falcons quarterback Steve Bartkowski threw a Hail Mary pass towards the end zone that was tipped by Atlanta receiver Wallace Francis into the hands of teammate Alfred Jackson for a 20-17 Atlanta victory. Two weeks later in Atlanta, the Falcons, down 17-13 at their own 28-yard line with 53 seconds to go, witnessed Bartkowski drive the team down the field and into the end zone with only five seconds left for another 20-17 victory.

In the only postseason encounter between the franchises, Atlanta defeated New Orleans in the Superdome 27-20 in the Wild Card playoff round. Falcons quarterback Chris Miller hit receiver Michael Haynes for the go-ahead 61-yard touchdown with just under three minutes left in the game.

New Orleans re-opened the Superdome on September 25, 2006 against Atlanta after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Before a delirious crowd and a national television audience, the Saints dominated the Falcons, 23-3. In the first quarter, New Orleans safety Steve Gleason blocked a punt that teammate Curtis Deloatch recovered in the end zone for a touchdown. Atlanta could produce very little offensively the rest of the game. The contest became the highest-rated program in the history of ESPN. In July 2012, a statue of the Gleason punt block was erected outside the Superdome. Entitled “Rebirth,” the statue represents the resilience of the New Orleans people after the destruction rendered by Hurricane Katrina.

During the Saints’ Super Bowl season of 2009, the teams met again on Monday Night Football in the Superdome. After the first quarter, Atlanta led 14-7, but the Saints scored 21 second-quarter points to take command. Behind quarterback Matt Ryan, the Falcons rallied but saw their hopes dashed by a late fourth quarter Ryan interception at the New Orleans five-yard line. The Saints held on for a 35-27 victory.

During the 2012 season, the Saints came to Atlanta three weeks after giving the Falcons their first loss of the season, 31-27, in New Orleans. As the Saints players, coaches, and staff prepared to leave the airport in a charter bus, airport workers threw eggs at the bus. Possibly inspired by the actions of the soon-to-be unemployed workers, the Falcons intercepted Saints quarterback Drew Brees five times on the way to a 23-13 win.

Brees and the Saints gained a measure of revenge during a Thursday night nationally-televised encounter with the Falcons in the Georgia Dome in 2013. Brees threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jimmy Graham and a one yarder to back up tight end Benjamin Watson for a 17-13 Saints victory. Brees surpassed Warren Moon for fifth place on the all-time career passing list after throwing for 278 yards against the Falcons.

No matter the records, games between the Falcons and Saints bring out the best in both teams and the worst in the two fan bases. For the “Who Dat?” Nation and the “Rise Up!” throng, no victory is sweeter than the one against their bitter rivals.