Play to Win

GaBiz Editor in Chief discusses economic impact, philanthropic giving, and sustained growth with long-time Peach Bowl, Inc. CEO and president Gary Stokan.

Football fans from around the country were watching the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium on January 31 to see whether the University of Georgia or Ohio State would come out on top (congrats to the UGA Bulldogs) and go on to play in the 2023 College Football Playoff National Championship. The annual tournament and the organization behind it has grown since it began in 1968, becoming a major economic driver for Georgia. “Since 1999, college football games hosted by our organization have delivered $1.3 billion in total economic impact and $79.3 million in combined direct state and local tax revenue generated within the metro area,” says Gary Stokan, who has served as CEO and president since 1998. “We estimate our total economic benefit for Atlanta and Georgia will be close to $100 million this year, with an additional $7 million in direct tax revenue as a result of our three games and nearly 200,000 visitors coming to our city.” Here, Stokan offers insight into both the history and the future of the game.

The tournament has evolved since its inception in 1968, when it was played on Grant Field at Georgia Tech. What has changed and what have been the most important elements for its success?

We’re fortunate to be in the position we are today, hosting a College Football Playoff Semifinal in primetime on New Year’s Eve in what is shaping up to be the marquee game of the entire bowl season. We really gained momentum in the 1990s and have built off that ever since. In 1991, we signed a television contract with ESPN, showcasing the game to a larger national audience. In 1992, the ACC and SEC signed on to create the first permanent bowl matchup between the rival conferences. The opening of Atlanta’s Georgia Dome soon after enabled the game to move indoors for the 1992 Peach Bowl, increasing capacity and boosting team payouts. The Bowl then signed Chick-fil-A as our first-ever title sponsor in 1996, which is currently the longest-running sponsorship of all the bowl games. We created the Peach Bowl Challenge charity golf tournament in 2007 and added the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in 2008, which reshaped opening weekend in the sport by matching top-ranked teams to open the season. The bowl also quarterbacked the relocation of the College Football Hall of Fame to Atlanta and assumed the day-to-day management of The Dodd Trophy in 2014. All of these factors, along with our 17-game sellout, allowed us to be able to be in the position we’re in today as a member of the New Year’s Six and part of the College Football Playoff.

Our continued success would not be possible without our relationship with Chick-fil-A and the support of our other generous corporate partners and stakeholders around Atlanta. With that level of corporate support, the best staff in the business, and a group of more than 600 of the best volunteers in the industry, we can make good on our promise to provide our teams and their fans with an unmatched bowl experience every year.

The business community is experiencing staffing challenges across industries. How have you kept a strong team to create the hospitality guests have come to expect?

Around a third of our full-time staff members have been with the organization for more than 20 years. Our executive assistant, Patti Young, is celebrating her 53rd bowl game, which speaks volumes to the type of culture we’ve been able to create.

There are several factors that have played a role. Our business philosophy revolves around the concept of T.E.A.M. That includes teamwork and working together as a team; empowerment, where everyone has been recruited for a role that they have agreed to, accepted, and are empowered to play; accountability, which means everyone is responsible and accountable to themselves and the rest of the team to be successful in playing their role; and management, where we manage the whole process with all of these things in mind. We also hold a business model of C.A.R.E., which represents customers first, positive attitude, relationships, and excellence in all that we do.

Chick-fil-A became involved in 1997. How does its influence show up?

Chick-fil-A has been a phenomenal partner, and we’re blessed to have the longest-running title sponsorship of any bowl game. Both Chick-fil-A and our bowl have seen tremendous growth since that partnership began in 1996. When Chick-fil-A came on board, they were more of a Southeastern-based brand that perfectly matched the geographical footprint of the SEC and ACC, which was our conference tie-in at the time. Since that time, we’ve both expanded our brands across the country but stayed true to our roots and what allowed us to become successful in the first place. Even through all the changes over the years, we continue to reach passionate college football fans, create lasting memories, and offer first-class hospitality that is unmatched in our industries. That’s one of the many reasons the partnership has been so successful all these years.

The College Football Playoffs will expand to 12 teams starting in 2024. What do you think that means for the future of bowl games?

With the expanded College Football Playoff, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl will now host a quarterfinal in 2024 and a semifinal in 2025. If this same model moves forward into 2026 and beyond, we’ll be a part of the College Football Playoff every year, which will be huge for the city of Atlanta. Expansion is only going to enhance our reputation as the “Capital of College Football.” For example, look at the 2024 season. We’ll have Clemson and Georgia open the season in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, the SEC Championship Game, followed by our bowl game hosting its first-ever quarterfinal, and then the CFP National Championship Game to end the season. Atlanta will officially become the first city to host the sport’s biggest game twice, which I think is a testament to how much college football means to this town.

Philanthropy is a big part of the Peach Bowl. How does giving back make the game unique?

As the ninth oldest bowl game and the first to be created to give back to charity, the mission of the Peach Bowl is to be the most charitable bowl organization in the country.

We’ve maintained that mission by donating and committing $60.9 million in charity and scholarship since 2002, which is more than any other bowl organization.

This year alone, we’ve committed $5.9 million in charitable donations, the largest donation planned by any bowl in the country. Some of the recipients of these donations include the Peach Bowl LegACy Fund benefiting Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Westside Future Fund, Andrew & Walter Young Family YMCA, Atlanta Police Foundation, Atlanta Public Schools, endowed scholarships, various university head coach foundations, and the Georgia Lions Lighthouse, among others. From eradicating childhood cancer to allowing kids to further their education, we’re changing lives through football. That’s truly what drives us at the end of the day.