By Corey Clark
corey.clark@gwinnettdailypost.com

Staff Photo: Craig Moore
Georgia Force owner Arthur Blank speaks during an afternoon press conference Monday at the Falcons’ Flowery Branch headquarters. Blank spoke about the possibility of moving the team’s games to Philips Arena in Atlanta.




FLOWERY BRANCH — In the next two weeks, the Georgia Force will officially announce whether it will continue to play games at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
Though new team president Dick Sullivan called it a “coin flip” during a press conference Monday at the team’s new facility in Flowery Branch, it appears as if he and owner Arthur Blank are already presenting their case for a move back to Atlanta.
“There’s a couple of things,” Sullivan said about the reasons to move the team to Philips Arena. “There’s a lot of excitement taking place downtown. Obviously with the addition of the World of Coke and the aquarium and all the great things that are being done downtown, it seems like a logical place for us to look at.
“But importantly, we received research back, and the fans’ interest in Philips is very, very high. Every route — 75, 85, 400, 20 — it all leads to downtown. But at the same time we love Gwinnett. I think Gwinnett is terrific. I attended a couple of games there, and they’ve done a phenomenal job in that building.”
However, it’s the building itself, or more specifically the seating capacity, that has the Force’s new management concerned. The Arena at Gwinnett Center has a capacity of just 11,200, while Philips seats 20,300 for Hawks games and 18,750 for Thrashers contests.
“The difficulty we have is that it is the second-smallest arena in the AFL,” Sullivan said. “And nothing I know that Arthur’s ever done wants to be associated with the second smallest. Because of the demand that we already have within the marketplace, we think that we could fill up Philips. So when you’re dealing with the difference between 10 and 15,000, we want to be able to reach out to as many fans as possible.”
The question is: Will they?
The Force drew 9,160 people per home game in 2004, which ranked 16th in the 19-team league and was almost 3,000 below the AFL average of 12,019. But those figures were an improvement on the team’s attendance in 2002, when the Force drew just 7,070 people per game at Philips before deciding to move to Gwinnett under former owner Virgil Williams.
Sullivan, who is also the marketing chief for the Falcons, doesn’t seem concerned about those low numbers repeating themselves if the team moves back for the 2005 season.
“There are a lot of things that are stacked in our favor,” he said. “When you look at the last couple of years, NFL owners that have purchased AFL teams, their teams rank in the top five of the 20 teams in terms of attendance. So, if you’re an NFL-owned team, you’re going to historically be at the top of the pack, which means you (shouldn’t have) an arena that only holds the bottom of the pack.”
“There are issues in terms of capacity,” Blank said. “While that may not be important today, we have a lot of confidence in our ability to fill up almost any place ... given the growth of Atlanta in the next 10, 15 years, going from 41¼2 to 7 million people, we’d have to have some capacity to grow.”
The only worry Blank seems to have about returning to Philips is possible schedule conflicts. The Hawks and Thrashers will both be in the middle of their seasons when the Force begins in February, and the circus will also be in town for much of that month.
“It’s one of the challenges to work out scheduling at Philips Arena,” Blank said. “So we’re still debating that and looking at all the options and things, and both facilities are working with us, but I would say my viewpoint is that Philips is a little more of a challenge in terms of scheduling. I think it’s workable, but not as easy.
“That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it; you never really take on anything based on ease.”