March 4, 2017
Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word –
It’ll be half a year before Georgia Tech plays the American version again in Bobby Dodd Stadium, yet in just a day there will be some serious futbol in the nation’s oldest on-campus cathedral of college football.
When Atlanta United FC breathes life for the first time as a Major League Soccer expansion franchise on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. against the New York Red Bulls, the field will be different than when the Yellow Jackets take on Jacksonville State Sept. 9.
There’s more grass and, of course, the sellout crowd of 55,000 or so won’t see any goalposts.
Approached by Atlanta United when the fledgling soccer club went looking for a place to play home games while waiting for Mercedes-Benz Stadium to be completed, the Georgia Tech Athletic Association agreed to offer Bobby Dodd in exchange for compensation and exposure that will benefit Tech.
For Elizabeth Lancaster, Georgia Tech’s assistant athletics director for events and facilities, this is a passion play. Before her hire last fall, she worked in a variety of capacities at North Carolina, where she also played college soccer and lacrosse. She’s been a point person for the GTAA, helping re-configure for a spring and summer dream.
“It’s exciting to have a different crowd than we get on football gameday, so we’re really excited to be able to bring 55,000 people onto campus,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to show off our campus and our facilities.”
Bobby Dodd will play host to Atlanta United’s first eight home games and this all works out so well that the Jackets will have the field at their disposal for the entirety of spring practice as the soccer club will be on an extended road trip.
The GTAA will receive $45,000 for each home game plus $2 for every ticket sold, a portion of revenues from food and beverages sold and $5,000 for each game when the team sells merchandise.
Atlanta United also will pay $275,000 for locker-room accommodations and $350,000 for changes to the field after the final soccer game is played July 4.
Speaking of locker rooms, the home team will use Tech’s and visitors will use the football visitor’s digs. Where soccer teams typically exit locker rooms and take the field simultaneously from the same tunnel, for MLS games, the teams will enter from Bobby Dodd’s north and south ends and meet in the middle.
Then, they’ll share the West sideline, with an official’s table between benches. The East sideline, in fact, is just a few yards from the brick wall.
Gorgeous grass spreads wider than usual in Bobby Dodd now, falling within the MLS range of 100-120 yards in length and 70-80 yards wide and the concrete strip that typically runs up against the brick wall on the West side is covered with artificial turf.
— Georgia Tech (@GeorgiaTech) March 3, 2017
The big scoreboard on the South end and all ribbon boards will operate during games and Atlanta United will control live marketing, though Lancaster said there will be Georgia Tech branding visible in the stadium.
That is just one example of the collaborative effort between Georgia Tech and its newest professional sports neighbor.
Beyond field expansion, GTAA officials had to work with Atlanta United to establish lower camera angles than are used for college football. The soccer club is handling all ticket distribution.
About 30 GTAA staffers will be involved in gameday operations, yet Atlanta United has been in charge of making primary security, concessions and merchandising arrangements.
Fans will be examined with a wand upon entering Bobby Dodd and hand bags must be clear to enter. Otherwise, the place will feel like it always does even for Tech football players.
“We’ll clear out [a few lockers] only on game days,” Lancaster said. “We want to minimize impact to our student-athletes as much as possible so they’ll have access to their locker room.”
Every seat will be in use Sunday. For the United’s second and third games, March 18 and April 30, a limited number of seats will be available in the upper North stands. For the final five home games, the entire upper North will be off-line for sake of maintenance previously planned by the GTAA.
During that big gap between home games two and three, the Jackets will hold their spring football practices, using Bobby Dodd for scrimmages and their annual Spring Game on Friday, April 21.
Then, the field will be re-sodded. The middle of the field was not re-sodded before the deal with Atlanta United, but all of it will be new entering the summer.
As Lancaster said, “The field will be replaced halfway through the [soccer] season, which is an incredible advantage for Georgia Tech [and] so great for our student-athletes.”
Bobby Dodd, which played host to a sold-out Rolling Stones concert in 2015, has seen soccer before.
The Atlanta Beat, a women’s professional team, played their inaugural season there in 2001, and in 1973 the facility – then Grant Field – was home to the Atlanta Apollos. That team was the successor to the Chiefs, who played in the NPSL and NASL from 1967-’72.
The goal for Georgia Tech is to make the place feel like home for the United and its fans.
“This is a stadium that works really well for college football, and MLS has different requirements, but we’ve worked really hard to make it a great facility for them that fits their needs,” Lancaster said.
“We’ve got a lot of national TV productions, especially for this first game . . . all the excitement around the city for the team. It’s incredible for Georgia Tech to be a part of this, to have the opportunity to host them and welcome so many new fans and our fans back to campus for something that’s so different.”