The eyes of Tennessee's high school football fans could soon be turning toward the Scenic City.
Chattanooga Sports, a division of Chattanooga Tourism Co., in conjunction with numerous other community partners, is teeing up a plan to bid for the right to host the TSSAA BlueCross Bowl.
Tennessee Tech University has served as the host site for the state's football championship games since 2009, including all nine games (six classifications for public schools and three for private schools) last fall at Tucker Stadium in Cookeville. TSSAA assistant director Matthew Gillespie said Cookeville is the only city besides Chattanooga that has notified the state's prep sports governing body that it intends to submit a bid.
"It has always been a target of ours to get this championship event here, so when we saw the bid opportunities coming open for this cycle, we began putting together our plan," said Tim Morgan, chief sports officer of Chattanooga Sports. "Our bid will offer both a venue worthy of hosting a state championship as well as a championship experience for players and fans coming into Chattanooga.
"I want to be clear that this is not about just our organization. We're the tip of the spear, but it's a spear that extends quite a ways because there will be a lot of businesses and people of influence involved in putting this on. This will be about the kids who have worked so hard to achieve a dream, and when they come to Chattanooga we will fulfill a taste of what it's like to play at the next level."
The bids, which are due by Feb. 26, will be for the right to host the title games for the 2021 and 2022 seasons. Chattanooga's bid would include Finley Stadium (20,412 capacity) - which hosts both University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football games and professional soccer matches for the Chattanooga Football Club - as the game site. The winning bid will be chosen when the TSSAA Board of Control meets on March 16.
"If you just look at what we have to offer in terms of Finley Stadium's excellent field, the seating and press box, those are things that really stand out," said Soddy-Daisy principal Steve Henry, who represents the Chattanooga area on the TSSAA Board of Control. "For the fans coming in, you could stay in any number of hotels downtown and be able to just walk to several nice restaurants and then to the games.
"The board will look at the finances from both bid proposals first, of course, and then the other factors would be things like the best facilities, how easy it is for everyone coming in to get to the site and have ample parking, places to eat and things to offer. I believe Chattanooga is in a good place to offer a lot of positives."
The championship games are spread out over a three-day span, with three games played each day, and typically bring in from 40,000 to 50,000 people for the event. The Cookeville-Putnam County Visitors Bureau has estimated the BlueCross Bowl has an annual economic impact of $2.5 million to $3 million from visitor spending.
"We do events similar to this every day with conventions and thousands of people coming to visit our attractions," said Hugh Morrow, president and CEO of Ruby Falls. "We're a great sports town. We've hosted the women's SEC basketball tournament, the FCS national championship, (TSSAA) Spring Flings and Ironman competitions, so we know how to put on a first-class sports event.
"Finley was designed for something like this. It's a perfect fit because the stadium and our city has the size to accommodate a big crowd, but there's also a homey feeling because we're a hospitality town."
Although neither Chattanooga nor Cookeville have given details of what their bid packages will include, Cookeville's most recent winning bid guaranteed the TSSAA $253,000 each year as well as 50% of ticket sales after it recouped that total.
In 2017 Cookeville retained the right to host the event when the Board of Control voted 9-3 in favor of its bid over Clarksville, which was the only other bidding city and would have held games at Austin Peay State University. At that time, as expressed by some board members, the main reason for not moving it to Austin Peay was that Fortera Stadium's seating capacity was just 10,800, compared to 16,500 at Tennessee Tech's Tucker Stadium.
However, board members did express concerns over the conditions of Tucker Stadium, which was built in 1966. Concerns regarding the stadium have been the biggest detraction since the title games were moved to Cookeville 12 years ago and, overall, the venue has been seen as a step down from the state championship game's previous host site at Middle Tennessee State University.
Numerous coaches and players have expressed a displeasure with the cramped, outdated locker rooms at Tucker Stadium, as well as the fact that the teams preparing to play one of the final two games each day must dress in an auxiliary gym across the street from the stadium. Fans have also complained throughout Tennessee Tech's time as host that the stadium's restrooms and concessions are inadequate, and because of the numerous leaks in the walkway leading to the concessions area as well as inside the restrooms during rainy conditions.
The TSSAA began hosting each classification's title game at one site in 1982, when Vanderbilt's Dudley Field in Nashville was the venue. The title games were moved to Murfreesboro in 2000, where they stayed until Cookeville won the right to host in 2009.
A football state championship game has not been held in Chattanooga since Red Bank hosted the 1978 Class AAA title game.
"The bottom line is it started with the venue," Morgan said. "We have a community asset in Finley - with its seating capacity, suites capacity, new jumbotron and the ability to create a special game-day experience.
"There is a significant passion for football in our area. Recognizing that passion and wanting to feed it, everyone from Finley to UTC athletics and beyond has been committed to being a part of helping us chase after this plan. Everyone we're dealing with recognizes this would be great for our entire community.
"If you have all the tools in the shed, it would be a shame not to use them to try and build something really special. Chattanooga has all the tools needed."
Chattanooga was recently awarded the right to host the TSSAA wrestling state traditional tournament, which left the city 12 years ago but will be held Feb. 24-26 at the Chattanooga Convention Center. That came about only after the original host site - the Williamson County Ag Expo Park, which had hosted the past 11 state tournaments - was needed as a COVID-19 testing center.
Chattanooga was also awarded the right to host the girls' soccer state tournament this fall. Morgan added that there are plans to bid on keeping the wrestling tournament in Chattanooga.
"I think Chattanooga is putting forth a strong platform to bring some TSSAA events back to the area," Henry said. "What I found out at our last meeting is that a lot of the committee members like the idea of coming to Chattanooga for championship events. They've been impressed with the enthusiasm and the facilities that were part of the bids from our area so far."