Steve Robinson sat in the upper deck of the Georgia Dome on New Year’s Eve, 1993 and his instincts told him there was opportunity percolating on the field below him. Clemson was playing Kentucky in the Peach Bowl and even though the game was not a sellout, Robinson marveled over the vibe in the stadium.
There are more details in his just released book, Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A: How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand, but basically the idea to get Atlanta a bigger place on the national college football stage was hatched at a college football game.
The chief marketing officer for Chick-fil-A, Robinson started adding ideas to a stew in his head throughout the second half of the game. His mock-up included:
It was not a lightning bolt revelation where Robinson jumped to his feet with his eureka! moment. It was careful consideration, the drip-drip-drip of marketing plan being hatched, and the buzz in the stadium was Robinson’s fuel. You have heard of outlines for a transformative business venture happening in garages, or scribbled on a napkin at a restaurant. This was at a football game.
Finally, Robinson turned to his wife, Dianne, and said, “I’m amazed this game doesn’t have a title sponsor.”
“Well, why don’t you do it,” she said.
He did do it. Robinson took those instincts—college football paired with Chick-fil-A—and added the science of marketing and brought the idea to the CFA executive committee. Chick-fil-A, he proposed, should launch itself into the business of college football by sponsoring the Peach Bowl.
Not everyone shared the vision. There was a vote: 4-4. Then Truett Cathy, the founder, broke the tie.
“Let’s do it,” said the legendary boss.
It was a benchmark moment in Atlanta’s sports history, one of the reasons the city can call itself “The sports capital of the U.S.”
Chick-fil-A became the title sponsor to the game, elevated the Peach Bowl’s national status, and helped grabbed semifinal and championship games of the College Football Playoff for Atlanta. In 2008, Chick-fil-A started the national trend of a marquee game at the beginning of the college football season.
Along the way, college football helped Chick-fil-A, founded in tiny Hapeville, Ga., become a national brand. Robinson’s job was to help the operators of the restaurants sell chicken sandwiches. They are selling them by the armful, especially on Saturdays.
“We were blessed to come along at the right time,” Robinson said.
College football in 1993 was gaining steam and title sponsors were latching on to bowl games to build their brands. The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. The Fed Ex Orange Bowl, among others.
In the early 90s, the Peach Bowl needed juice, or it was going to be left behind. Revenue came from ticket sales, a modest TV deal, and local sponsorships. It wasn’t enough to keep up with the fast-moving train that was college football. What the bowl had that was especially convertible to Chick-fil-A was its tie-in with the Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference. SEC vs. ACC was smack dab in the middle of the Chick-fil-A territory of restaurants, Robinson said.
Robert Dale Morgan, the CEO of the Peach Bowl, was wary of a title sponsor because it could be gone in a year. Robinson took a three-year deal to Morgan, with an option for three more years.
“We were in it for the long haul,” Robinson said.
It was really a six-year deal, as far as Robinson was concerned. The Peach Bowl signed on.
Robinson is a graduate of Auburn. He was in college when the the Heisman Trophy quarterback Pat Sullivan connected with wide receiver Terry Beasley to form one of the great pass-catch duos in the history of the game. He is a fan of the game. So Robinson knew the allure of the game, and it played on Saturday, not Sunday, when Chick-fil-A is closed for religious reasons.
In 2014, Chick-fil-A, which was in 47 states now, became one of 15 sponsors for the College Football Playoff. It was 15th in sales among the 15, but it was in the game with the big boys, Allstate, AT&T, Gatorade, etc. Atlanta would host a national semifinal in 2017, 2020, 2023, 2023, and 2026. It hosted the national championship game in 2018.
Chick-fil-A kept on making investments in college football here. When the idea was floated for the College Football Hall of Fame to come to Atlanta from South Bend, Indiana, the business community was cautious about jumping in with big checks to build the Hall. Somebody had to step up and Chick-fil-A jumped first and wrote big checks behind Dan Cathy, who took over the company from his father. The $66 million museum was built near CNN Center.
The Peach Bowl was created in 1968 by the Lions Clubs of Georgia to help raise money for charity. The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl has helped fulfill the mission. Peach Bowl, Inc., said it gave $10.1 million in charity and scholarship in 2018. It says it has given $33.8 million to charitable causes since 2002.
Robinson was standing on the sidelines of the Georgia Dome with Truett Cathy before kickoff for one of their games. They were gazing into the stands.
“What do you see?”, Robinson asked his boss.
“I see our customers,” Cathy said. And he smiled wide.