ATLANTA — Last Thursday night in Charlotte, Greg Sankey attended his first football game as SEC commissioner. After South Carolina had beaten North Carolina 17-13 at Bank of America Stadium, Sankey went into the victorious Gamecocks locker room.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier handed Sankey a game ball.
“Coach Spurrier told me I was 1-0 and not to drop it,” Sankey said.
He didn’t. At the end of his first football weekend, the new commish was 12-1. It would have been 13-1 but “we lost one other game (LSU vs. McNeese State) to the weather,” he said.
On Monday at the College Football Hall of Fame, Sankey received his second game ball in five days. This one marked his first watershed moment after replacing Mike Slive: Sankey announced that the SEC had agreed to a 10-year extension of its contract to play the conference’s football championship game in Atlanta.
The SEC championship game, which moved from Birmingham to Atlanta in 1994, will be played for two more years in the Georgia Dome as part of the old agreement. In 2017, the game will move next door, to the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new home of the Atlanta Falcons. The new agreement goes for 10 years, with a pair of five-year options if both sides agree. That’s potentially a 22-year commitment between the SEC and Atlanta.
And that’s a big deal.
“This an exciting day for the SEC,” said Sankey, who was joined at the announcement by Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed and Falcons owner Arthur Blank. “We’ve had an incredible run at the Georgia Dome. And we’re not done yet.”
Did any of this come as a surprise? Certainly not. Other cities have shown interest in the SEC championship game over the years. New Orleans has long wanted to pry the event out of Atlanta. With Texas A&M coming into the conference, the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, host of last season’s national championship game, had become a possibility, as did the stadium in Houston. Various Florida venues would love to host the event. But at the end of the day, those conversations really never materialized.
“There is just so much history between the SEC and Atlanta that there was really only one direction for us to go,” Sankey said. “Understanding what has happened here in the past 20 years, the fact that Atlanta is such a hub to the rest of the world, it really made for an easy decision.”
The Georgia Dome was built in 1992 and has hosted the Super Bowl, NCAA Final Fours, the Olympics, the Chick-fil-A and Peach bowls, the SEC championship game and scores of other events. In 2016, it will host one of the semifinals of the College Football Playoff. The SEC championship game has enjoyed 19 consecutive sellouts at the Georgia Dome and has had an economic impact of more than $1 billion to the state. The Georgia Dome is a functional facility that is extremely well-managed.
But Blank, who built his personal fortune (a net worth of more than $2.6 billion) as the co-founder of The Home Depot, wanted more than functional for the home of the Falcons and for Atlanta. He wanted a state-of-the-art building that had all the bells and whistles found in the best stadiums in the world. To that end, he has invested $800 million of his own money in the new stadium.
And he wanted the building, controlled by his organization, to keep all of the events that made the Georgia Dome so successful. The SEC championship game, Blank said, is at the top of that list.
“Keeping the legacy events like the SEC championship game was critical to the success of Mercedes-Benz Stadium,” said Blank, whose objective is to “build the world’s leading facility.”
Understand that these talks between the SEC and the management team of Blank’s stadium have been going on for a while. There never was any doubt that an agreement was going to be reached. But getting the parties together for an announcement was problematic.
Last year was a busy one for the SEC. Its television network was launched. The College Football Playoff was in its first year. Former commissioner Mike Slive announced in October that he would be retiring. Sankey’s hiring was announced in late March, he took over June 1 and he has been on a whirlwind tour ever since.
It was ultimately decided that the announcement would not be made until after the naming rights to the new stadium were awarded. Mercedes-Benz, which also sponsors the Superdome in New Orleans, came aboard Aug. 24.
Also understand that this is more than just the SEC moving one of its events into a shiny new building. It is Sankey’s signal that the SEC has no intention of resting on its laurels.
The SEC had an incredible run of success under Slive with the additions of Texas A&M and Missouri plus the launching of the SEC Network. In Slive’s 13 years as commissioner the SEC won 67 national championships, in 15 of its 21 sponsored sports. Under Slive, the SEC won eight national championships in football, including a string of seven in a row from 2006-12.
Thanks to the SEC Network and the College Football Playoff, in June each member school received $31.2 million in shared revenue, a $10 million raise from the year before. The past 25 years, starting with the arrival of Roy Kramer as commissioner in 1990, have truly marked the golden age of the SEC.
Now Sankey’s job is to take the handoff and lead the SEC into its next wave of growth. Moving its signature event into what should be one of the world’s best stadiums is the next logical step.
“Our challenge as a conference was to take a great event that has been very successful and to find a way to make it better,” Sankey said. “One way to do that is to find a venue that is even better than what we have now in the Georgia Dome, which has been great to us. And we’ll do that in 2017.
“Our best days are still ahead of us.”
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