The downtown university's Panthers will play this year in a 25,000-seat stadium refashioned from the Braves' Turner Field, itself a conversion from the 1996 Olympics' track and field stadium.
Georgia State held a media open house Monday for what is now called Georgia State Stadum, pending a corporate naming deal. The coming out party made enough of a splash to rate coverage from the AJC's venerable scribes Tim Tucker and Steve Hummer, who've witnessed a good chunk of history at the site, including a Braves World Series championship across the street at old Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium, torn down after serving as the Olympics' baseball field.
The downtown university's stadium caps its effort to find a place in the big-time college football universe, and arrives after the latest report detailing the severe brain damage football players suffer. Although many fans are turning away from football because of moral concerns over its dangers, Georgia State and Kennesaw State have joined the rush of schools seeking to profit from the game and its rich TV receipts. On the local level, exclusive Buckhead private school Pace Academy joined the football parade several years ago.
Universities see football as a means to increase national visibility and attract students. Nick Saban's championships at Alabama have helped the school draw academically talented students from across the nation, according to a New York Times article. Nothing excites a young cellist or physicist more than yelling "Roll Tide" along with thousands of others wearing houndstooth fedoras. For schools like Ga. State, the sport can turn into more of a curse than a blessing.
The school plays in the beefed-up Sunbelt Conference, along with other lower-tier teams seeking to increase their football profile. The conference encompasses Georgia Southern, which has moved unto the lower level of Division I after years as a power in what the NCAA calls its playoffs division, i.e. smaller schools.
The Sunbelt also counts dreamers like Troy and Louisiana Lafayette, which have enjoyed brief spells of football glory among much mediocrity. I was amused that along with far-flung teams like Texas State and the University of Louisiana-Monroe, the Sunbelt also includes the snow-laden Idaho.
Georgia State will seek football relevance in the market of major powers the University of Georgia and Ga. Tech, which plays home games at Grant Field/Bobby Dodd Stadium in nearby midtown Atlanta. Atlanta is also packed with alums from SEC, ACC and Big 10 schools. Ga. State's rising alumni base so far has not shown an inclination to travel downtown on sun-kissed autumn Saturdays.
With a spot in the NCAA championship finals unlikely, Ga. State's highest aspiration appears to be an invitation to one of the many minor bowls that infest ESPN's holiday schedule. UGA and Ga. Tech will do all they can to maintain their prominence.
As Hummer said in his AJC column, the Panthers will need to build a winning program to attract fans, although many sports lovers will want to attend at least one game to check out the changes made to Turner Field. Unless injury concerns diminish the stock of players, high school football in Georgia and neighboring states will offer enough talent for Ga. State to challenge for Sunbelt titles. Any success beyond that looks unlikely.
Across downtown Atlanta, Arthur Blank's new Mercedes-Benz stadium also will make its debut this fall, replacing the Georgia Dome, where Georgia State played in its first years before a canyon of empty seats. After the worst collapse in Super Bowl history, a greater concern to fans than the prevalence of NFL brain injuries, the Falcons have struggled to sell high-priced seats at the new stadium. On top of their Super Bowl collapse, the Falcons have not figured out how to operate the stadium's high-tech retractable roof. Until the Falcons fix the roof, Ga. State and Ga. Tech will offer better views of the downtown skyline.
Some say the prevalence of brain injuries will lead to the demise of the NFL and college football. The number of injuries in high school and youth football is leading parents to forbid their children from playing the game. With its TV saturation, the NFL and its million dollar contracts will entice black kids mired in poverty. Rich alums and the romance of autumn Saturdays will keep college football going.
In the long run, who knows? In 20 years, cyborgs might play the game, or it could be defunct. For now, the brutal, beautiful sport will keep us watching.