Friday August 14th, 2020 9:31AM

Fans are key factor to save 3 kickoff games in Atlanta

By The Associated Press
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ATLANTA (AP) — There is no room for negotiation on one key point as Atlanta organizers consider multiple contingency plans for three season-opening games during the coronavirus pandemic: Without fans, the games can't be played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl president Gary Stokan, whose organization is making plans for the Florida State-West Virginia, Georgia-Virginia and North Carolina-Auburn kickoff games, says fans must be allowed for the games to be played at the neutral site.

“If there are no fans allowed in the stadium, then we can’t do these games primarily because we only exist in our budget on ticket revenue and sponsor revenues," Stokan told The Associated Press on Thursday. “All the TV monies are negotiated in a conference package. That money all goes to the conference."

The Florida State-West Virginia game is scheduled for Sept. 5, followed by Georgia-Virginia on Sept. 7 and North Carolina-Auburn on Sept. 12.

This is the first year Stokan's committee has planned three kickoff games on the neutral site field. The committee stages the Peach Bowl, part of the College Football Playoff.

Stokan is awaiting decisions from the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big 12 on plans for the 2020 season. Those plans could be announced by the end of the month.

If the leagues rule out nonconference games, as already announced by the Big Ten and Pac-12, the kickoff games would not be played.

One or more of the kickoff games also might not survive if the leagues decide on “plus-one” plans to play conference games and one nonconference game. That plan would protect such rivalry games as Georgia Tech-Georgia and Florida State-Florida but might not leave room for the nonconference kickoff game.

The coronavirus pandemic already has led to the cancellation or postponement of more than 300 Division I games.

The season could be pushed back one month or to the spring.

Stokan says he has assurances that dates will be found at Mercedes-Benz Stadium if the games are rescheduled for later dates.

The NFL's Atlanta Falcons told season ticket holders this week they plan to have 10,000 to 20,000 fans at their home games this season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The team plans to leave 50,000 or more seats open to achieve necessary social distancing.

The stadium can be configured for 75,000 fans for college football.

Stokan says his committee is devising a plan with Ticketmaster “on software that would allow us to use the social distancing mechanism of six feet that would allow us to stay safe."

Stokan says he has been told the conferences are studying the impacts of players returning to workouts at college facilities, students returning to campuses and professional sports returning to competition. It may be difficult for the conferences to have as much information as is needed to make the decision by the end of July to have games in September.

Most professional sports initially returned without fans. NASCAR has allowed some fans in its recent races.

Stokan said it will be more expensive to stage the games “because everybody is going to have to wear a mask.” He said adding expenses while cutting revenue is “a bad way to run a budget."

Stokan said the latest guidance from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp clears the way for fans to attend with proper social distancing — if the conferences and schools agree.

With no fans, the only option may be to stage the kickoff games on campus sites.

“We’d have to go back to the teams and say we financially can’t do this," Stokan said.


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