Atlanta’s College Football Hall of Fame set to open in August

The College Football Hall of Fame's brand new venue in Atlanta is set to open Aug. 23.

ATLANTA — Looking down from a podium onto a partially finished 45-yard indoor football facility, one that sits in the center of a 94,000-square-foot landmark for college football, the de facto founding fathers of the College Football Hall of Fame venue in Atlanta offered up a long-running expression of gratitude on Thursday afternoon. Their exhaustive project is nearing its completion, the uphill climb leveling off.

The College Football Hall of Fame revealed its founding sponsors, its new logo, its full title and opening date at Thursday’s media event, and, for those who have worked for years behind the scenes to bring the venue to Marietta Street in downtown Atlanta, right on the outskirts of Centennial Olympic Park, it was as much a public sigh of relief as it was a celebration.

The public opening is set for Saturday, Aug. 23, two days earlier than previously expected and, more importantly, on budget, according to Atlanta Hall Management president and CEO John Stephenson. The opening comes just in time for the start of the 2014 college football season, notably the Chick-fil-A Kickoff’s marquee two-game event at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta the following weekend.

There’s still plenty of work to be done — Stephenson described the media event as a "construction zone" — but the $68 million project is almost ready for its long-awaited reveal. And the marketing campaign has already begun in earnest.

"When fans come into this place, I think they are going to blindsided by the experience," Steve Robinson, a top marketing executive for Chick-fil-A and one of the leaders of the project, said.

The official name of the facility will be The College Football Hall of Fame and Chick-fil-A Fan Experience, with the Atlanta-based fast food franchise joining Kia, Coca-Cola, AT&T and the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl as the founding sponsors. Chick-fil-A was the largest financial contributor to the project and has also offered a 30-year commitment to marketing support to make the Hall of Fame a viable economic entity for the region.

"Everybody will come once," Stephenson said, "the trick is to get them to come back."

The arrival of this date was not always guaranteed, though. There were plenty of obstacles along the way — the first of which was acquiring the private funding for the construction project and the subsequent approval of the National Football Foundation to relocate the Hall of Fame from South Bend, Ind. Fundraising faced its own set of challenges early on as the city elected a new mayor, the state a new governor and the country slid into an economic recession. Stephenson described the entire process as "difficult," while also noting that around $1 million came from public funding, though Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development authority, did commit its resources at a crucial juncture. The group also dealt with a change in sites and a change in leadership.

Through all of this, Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl president and CEO Gary Stokan held a steady influence. As the National Football Foundation’s Steve Hatchell pointed out on Thursday, it was Stokan who really got the ball rolling on bringing the venue to Atlanta.

The National Football Foundation’s contract with the city of South Bend did not allow it to send out RFPs, request for proposals, around the country — meaning it was not allowed to actively search for relocation. What the organization’s Board of Directors, which includes the likes of NFL Hall of Famer Archie Manning and Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett, could do is listen to any proposal that was dropped on its doorstep. Stokan knew that. So he put together a group of investors and dropped a proposal on the correct doorstep.

"We weren’t looking to leave," Hatchell, the president and CEO of the National Football Foundation, said of South Bend. " … Gary put the right people together to come in and meet with our board. Our board, these are tough-nut business guys. It’s black and white. There’s no gray. (Chick-fil-A president) Dan Cathy came in with the governor (Sonny Perdue) and Gary Stokan said, ‘We’ll build it.’ And our guys said, ‘This is the place to be.’"

Hatchell did allude to other potential offers — i.e. other cities — to take on the project. So why Atlanta?

That was a fairly easy selling point for the group, surrounded by the impressive initial return on its investment, on Thursday.

"Atlanta gives you a chance to showcase college football in every regard: media-wise, people-wise. It’s a city that embraces first-class presentations on everything," Hatchell said. "College football matters in the South, it matters in Atlanta, and we think it’s a reward for an area that football is important. It’s 13 months out of the year."

The venue is setting itself up not only as a museum of college football history, but as full-fledged fan experience and potential event space for large parties. (There’s already a page on its new website featuring little animated people in red-carpet outfits and offering the opportunity to plan a football-infused event.) Tickets go on sale Aug. 1 and full memberships will be available.

Stephenson said they expect 500,000 visitors per year — based on the traffic at popular surrounding venues, the World of Coke (1 million annually) and the Georgia Aquarium (2 million annually) — which, at $20 per adult ticket, would place annual revenues at an extremely rough $10 million.

All in all, every public figure representing the College Football Hall of Fame seemed pleased with the soon-to-be final result. The venue, which has moved from a brownstone in New York City to Cincinnati to a 17-year stay near the Notre Dame campus in South Bend, is twice the size as its former site and stocked with state-of-the-art viewing experiences. It’s being sold as a marriage of old and new.

"This captures history. This captures a look at the future. This captures the ability to bring young people through here so they can look at it and say, ‘Oh, I get this in football.’ Because the attention span is done in milliseconds, and you’ve got to be able to come in here move things around and say football is really exciting," Hatchell said. " … It’s interactive. It’s historical. This is a marvelous, fantastic showcase."