Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium had a bit of a coming out party Saturday night. A record capacity crowd greeted Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish and kept the stadium rocking until almost midnight. A national TV audience was able to witness Georgia grind out a victory. It was a great night to be a Bulldog.
I had the opportunity to try and explain college football over the weekend to someone who isn’t from this country. It was difficult to know where to begin, because it is an amateur sport that rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars. It is steeped in history but is ever changing. A bowl system that used to provide a few lucky players their first experience at travel has largely ceded its stature to over-saturation and relevance to a playoff system.
Georgia’s patron saint Lewis Grizzard once wrote a column explaining the intense rivalry of college football as “our way of life against theirs”. Whether one had ever stepped foot on campus didn’t matter. Our chosen university’s football team represented us – all that we believed in and all that we stood for. We didn’t want to lose to them, regardless who “they” were.
Some of “them”, however, needed to be beaten more than others. Fights among other SEC teams were heated rivalries. Being raised by a former Bulldog player, I was still taught that you pulled for SEC teams against others. They were, after all, family, and southerners don’t take kindly to outsiders who cause trouble for the family.
There were a few programs that had national stature, with Notre Dame chief among them. The had a national footprint that provided a recruiting base that transcended regional boundaries and a fan base that guaranteed ratings for any game they played.
Times have changed. The proliferation of televised games has removed much of the aura from the select few elite. The money from those television rights have allowed an arms race within college sports with many more schools now able to compete with the best. A recent ESPN article chronicled UGA’s “$200 Million quest to take down Alabama”.
Recruiting for all the major programs has been spread over a national footprint. Who each school views as their competition has largely changed.
There’s a clear parallel here between UGA’s football program and the state as a whole. In the half century since Vince Dooley began walking the sidelines of the field that now carries his name, Georgia has gone from a state that measured favorably against its southern neighbors to a national and international destination.
Our airport and ports are world class. Georgia basically invented the FinTech industry for payment processing, with the company that owns the New York Stock Exchange based here. 30 of the country’s Fortune 500 make their headquarters in the state, along with many North American Headquarters of international conglomerates.
The census taken before Vince Dooley’s arrival had Georgia as the 16th largest state in the country, just 15,000 people behind Wisconsin and almost 400,000 ahead of Tennessee and about 600,000 ahead of Alabama. Next year’s census will show Georgia as the 8th largest state in the country, and growth trends should have Georgia as the 5th largest about the time kids born today graduate college.
People and companies are voting with their feet, and they’re voting for the state of Georgia.
While our football team continues to target Alabama to declare supremacy, the state is no longer content with competing against Alabama, South Carolina, or Tennessee when it comes to economic development. It’s more frequent that our economic battles are with Texas, California, or other countries depending on the industry.
Like with football, this requires a different mindset. Georgia has to aim higher than “not bad for a southern state”. It’s now Georgia against the world.
For Georgia to win our battles at this level, it’s going to require us to understand who we’re really playing against. Once we understand the competition, we need to make sure we’re investing in the right places to win.
Charlie Harper, a Fayette County native, is the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com and the executive director of PolicyBEST, an Atlanta-based pro-business advocacy group.