The No. 10 Michigan State Spartans take on the No. 12 Pittsburgh Panthers on Thursday, Dec. 30 — exactly one week from today — in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta, Georgia. Ahead of the New Year’s Six bowl matchup, Gary Stokan, the Peach Bowl, Inc. CEO and president, took the time to speak with me in an in-depth one-on-one interview over the phone on Wednesday afternoon.
Mr. Stokan has served as the CEO and president of the Peach Bowl since 1998, and has overseen 22 sellouts in the past 24 years, and has ensured the annual bowl game is college football’s most charitable bowl organization – having donated $57.9 million since 2002. He also helped orchestrate the relocation of the College Football Hall of Fame to Atlanta. Mr. Stokan played college basketball for North Carolina State, has been married to his wife Tia for 43 years, and is the happy father of two and grandfather of four.
We cover a variety of topics related to the game, teams and corresponding events. The conversation can be read below.
The Only Colors: What is different about Bowl Week this year, particularly for the Peach Bowl, compared to prior years?
Gary Stokan: “The good thing is, this year, unlike last year with the COVID situation (when) we were only able to have capacity of 25 percent and we weren’t able to have bands or cheerleaders. So this year to have full capacity and bands and cheerleaders, it gets back to the normal college atmosphere, which is what we all know and appreciate, particularly when you’re in a packed facility like what we’ll have for the Pitt-Michigan State Peach Bowl.”
The Only Colors: Has the outbreak of Omicron nationally forced any last-minute changes, or any be considered today after the breaking news about the Gator Bowl, for example?
Gary Stokan: “We’re in constant contact with the two teams, and everything we do, like we did this year for our two Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games to start the season, will be based on safety for the fans, the media, the players and the staff. So we’ve had some experience last year with the COVID situation with Cincinnati vs. Georgia in our Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, and then this year, a different kind of experience where we could have full capacity with Alabama vs. Miami and Louisville vs. Ole Miss in our Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games. So between Mercedes-Benz Stadium and our staff and our volunteers, I think we’ve seen COVID and now Omicron from different sides and we’ll be well prepared to make sure that safety is the preeminent focus of everybody executing this event.”
The Only Colors: Among health safety measures, there has been mention that you are considering opening the roof for the game, weather dependent?
Gary Stokan: “One of the things we’re looking at, we opened it for our Chick-fil-A Kickoff games this year, and that was the first time that we’ve ever opened the roof for one of our games. We’ve never had it open for our Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The weather is looking pretty good Christmas and that week. Based on where we get a couple days before the game, we’ll make that decision whether we open the roof or not.
“Regarding the fan bases being more than capable of withstanding a chillier evening, that’s a great point. When these people come down here, I know Michigan State is getting down the 24th and Pitt the 25th (of December), these guys are going to just be amazed because I think in both East Lansing and Pittsburgh, it’s scheduled to snow for Christmas. So they’re going to leave the cold and snowy East Lansing and Pittsburgh for about 72 degrees and sunny. So when they practice that week, it’s going to be a nice week to practice and a nice day to play the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl as well.”
The Only Colors: How does the Peach Bowl view the ongoing conversation around College Football Playoff expansion? Is there a path forward for on-campus games and the current bowl system to co-exist?
Gary Stokan: “From what we’ve been able to ascertain from talking to (CFP executive director) Bill Hancock, the commissioners will meet in January and hopefully rally around a united and unanimous vote to take forward to the president of the management committee of the CFP to either stay at four, or move to eight, or move to 12 in some form or fashion. We at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl just hope that whatever is in the best interest of college football is voted on and that we would have a place in the new system moving forward, whether that be a quarterfinal and semifinal on a rotational basis, which is a proposal that has been put forth. We feel like we have done a pretty good job since joining the CFP in 2014 and being a part of the New Year’s Six and semifinals. Hopefully whatever develops is A. in the best interest of college football and B. That we have a place in it.”
The Only Colors: How does the opting out of star players Kenneth Walker III and Kenny Pickett affect the Peach Bowl for those who put it together, whether that be marketing, ticket sales, potential ratings or other factors?
Gary Stokan: “We’re very blessed to have great fans here in Atlanta that really love college football. The reason why a lot of media call us the home of college football, we’ve sold out 22 of 24 events. A lot of people buy tickets to our games knowing we’ll have a top-10 matchup, then next year we’ll have the semifinal (College Football Playoff) matchup against two top-four teams. They want that ticket to see top-10 teams and want that ticket to see the semifinals. We’ve been blessed to sell probably about 40,000 tickets without people knowing our teams on a regular basis.
“Then the two teams get 26,000 tickets, 500 for the bands that are complimentary, then 12,500 that they purchase from us per our contract with the CFP that they sell to their fans. We are close to a sellout. We’ve got 900 tickets, or a little less probably, left to sell to get to that sellout. We’re expecting a full crowd and looking forward to hosting two teams that are excited to be here.
“Michigan State, if they win this game, they’ll finish top-10. Having 11 wins I think will be only the fifth time in their 97-year history. Pitt, if they win this game to get to 12 wins, will be only one other time, their 1976 national championship team, in their 117 years of playing football. A lot to play for, a top-10 ranking, sending the seniors out in the right way, and finishing what you started.
“Obviously we understand the decisions that have to be made by, in this case Kenneth Walker III and his family, and Kenny Pickett and his family, regarding their potential future career.”
The Only Colors: How does the new age of NIL deals affect Bowl Week and non-CFP games? With a growing trend of high-profile players choosing to opt-out of bowl games, notably Kenneth Walker III and Kenny Pickett for this year’s Peach Bowl, is there an opportunity moving forward to reverse this without rule changes as it stands now (players cannot currently be played to play in a game or for performance on the field)? Are rule changes something that should be explored to change the incentive calculus?
Gary Stokan: “I’ve heard some national people say things like that. I think the NIL is still a developing process. Certainly we need national legislation by Congress to solidify an even base across the board, across all the states and conferences’ NIL that is consistent, number one.
“Number two, I think when you’re talking about Kenneth Walker and Kenny Pickett making decisions that are based on their draft selection that they already know from the NFL, I don’t think any kind of NIL deal is going to be worth enough to get them to play in a game like this. You’re talking about millions of dollars to be drafted in the first round and play in the NFL. I don’t think that comes into play, and I think to some degree that could work against that player and that team based on how that NIL deal would be structured as well.
“I don’t think that’s a viable alternative to players playing in games or opting out. I think there’s so much money, looking nowadays at NFL contracts, in your first three years that I don’t think you can put enough money on the table compared to what those players are looking at when they sign a NFL contract.”
The Only Colors: For the six players on MSU’s roster from Georgia (Editor’s Note: two have already entered the transfer portal, so now down to four), what do you think it means for them for this homecoming opportunity to play in front of friends and family and in the Falcons’ home stadium?
Gary Stokan: “They probably have never played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium since it’s so new and have probably been at Michigan State for a while. They may have played in a state championship there, but anytime you can play in front of your home crowd, your parents and friends, in a big time game, on a big time stage, national TV in a New Year’s Six game in primetime, yeah I think that’s a lot to play for.
“Pitt, I think, has six players on their roster as well. I could see all 12 of those guys, who may or may not have played against each other in high school, I haven’t done the research, but look forward to playing against each other in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in front of their family.”
The Only Colors: In your view, how does the Peach Bowl appearance help Mel Tucker reinforce his recruiting foothold in Georgia when combined with the seven players from the state who just signed last week for the class of 2022 and his time as defensive coordinator at Georgia from 2016-2018?
Gary Stokan: “I think that’s the main point, that he developed a lot of relationships with high school coaches when he was at Georgia and I think that is bearing fruit for him. He mentioned it at his press conference that it is important for their brand to be exposed as they recruit Atlanta and Georgia hard. Obviously they signed seven more kids (from Georgia) now.
“Any time you can have your brand, particularly when you’re out of the area like the Big Ten, they don’t get a chance to play down here that much. To have that brand in front of high school coaches, and I’m sure he’ll have high school recruits this week along with their coaches, coming to practices, that can’t happen if they weren’t at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
“You can reconnect with those six players that are on the team, coaches that will be coming, and those seven new ones that just signed. Recruiting is all about relationships, and Mel (Tucker) does a good job at that. He is going to be successful in Georgia and in the future as well.”
The Only Colors: As this is the first trip to the Peach Bowl for Spartan fans who are obviously more familiar with the Rose Bowl, what are some of your favorite things to do or a few things unfamiliar fans should know about ahead of the Peach Bowl?
There’s a few things fans must do, per Mr. Stokan’s suggestions. Here are those top three:
Gary Stokan “No. 1 is they’ve got to go to the Chick-fil-A College Football Hall of Fame. They will get two experiences. One is they will get a personalized Michigan State experience and meet and be around all the great Michigan State Hall-of-Famers. They will see their history and their plays, etc. Secondly they’ll get a totally immersive college football history going to the College Football Hall of Fame.”
No. 2, according to Mr. Stokan, is the FanFest at the Georgia World Congress Center Hall C. Per the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl website, the FanFest is “a giant indoor fan experience featuring 200,000 sq. feet of interactive attractions like punting, passing and kicking games, obstacle courses and zip lining. It will also feature sponsor displays, sponsor sampling, merchandise and live entertainment from the main stage. The highlight of the event will be the pep rallies, which include the cheerleaders, bands and mascots from both participating schools.”
No. 3 is the parade, which starts at 1:00 p.m. (Eastern Time) on game day (Dec. 30) in downtown and concludes at the FanFest.
A big thank you to Peach Bowl, Inc. CEO and president Gary Stokan for taking the time to talk with me on behalf of The Only Colors.
Eight things you’d be SHOCKED to learn about the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
With more than 53 years of history as the ninth-oldest bowl organization, many college football fans may think they know the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, but there’s some interesting facts your average fan probably isn’t aware of.
- The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl is college football’s most charitable bowl organization, having donated more than $57.9 million to charitable causes since 2002.
- The bowl was originally founded as a fundraiser for the Georgia Lions Lighthouse for the Blind, an organization dedicated to helping underserved Georgians with vision and hearing care.
- The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl led the effort to move the Chick-fil-A College Football Hall of Fame down from South Bend to Atlanta .
- Peach Bowl, Inc. events have delivered more than $1.22 billion in economic impact and $72.84 million in direct tax revenue to Atlanta since 1999.
- More than 3.1 million fans have attended the game since 1968, which is more than the population of 19 U.S. states.
- The games have been historically close with 53 percent of its prior matchups being decided by a touchdown or less.
- The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl has the second-longest title sponsor (Chick-fil-A) of any of the other bowls.
- The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl played a significant role in the creation of the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl when business leaders from Arizona attended the Peach Bowl game back in the early 1970s.