by Namali Premawardhana
There are yellow trucks parked on the field at Sanford Stadium. The sound of their beeping as they move around pierces through the hammering and whirring of machines as a construction crew sets up heavy rigging on the West end of the turf. Soon there will be a stage, lights and the sound of thousands of people’s kind of party.
The Jason Aldean concert that will be held this weekend is the first of its kind to take place at the Sanford Stadium; a historically significant musical event that is nevertheless not likely to have an impact on the music-culture of Athens. It seems doubtful that this could even be the first of many such shows that will take Athens to a different level in terms of tour destinations. But it is not completely out of the question.
Athens has a thriving music scene, but it is a tiny one. The Night Train Tour that hits Sanford Stadium will attract a crowd of over 65,000 people and the Athens music industry does not have resources that even come close to being able to deal with this magnitude of performance. No locals are getting a chance to dig some gold. At most, bands with gigs downtown that night will have a much bigger out-of-town audience than any other Saturday night.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of people downtown after the concert,” said Hannah Smith, Director of Marketing and Communications at the Athens Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. “Hotels are completely sold out which is a very good thing not just for hotels but for the entire local economy.”
The Georgia Theatre is nevertheless about the only music venue that’s making clear use of the occasion and the crowds, hosting an after-Jason-Aldean-party with one of the opening artists, Thomas Rhett.
Athens’ music-industry guru, Director of the Music Business Certificate Program at the university, David Barbe, called the Aldean show “one concert in a town full of concerts” as he explained the problem. “[It] won’t really have an impact unless it opens the door to there being more concerts of that size in Athens. I can’t imagine the Athletic Association letting that be a regular thing in the stadium… [They make] plenty of money off of football. They don’t really need to get into the concert business.”
And good or bad business is not the only reason more shows at Sanford Stadium are unlikely.
“This is a football stadium, that’s what it is,” Kenny Pauley, Director of Athletic Turf Grounds at the University of Georgia emphasized. “Sanford Stadium. It is a football stadium. When you come out there and play in between the hedges, it excites a lot of people.”
Pauley already knows the turf is sacred, but he doesn’t yet know what damage it will bear this weekend. He is expecting the worst and preparing for it. All he and his team are worried about is that there will be a repeat of G-day.
“Jarvis Jones walked out on the field, and all the fans that wanted to get his autograph destroyed about 30 feet of hedge,” he explained. “Right now I am more worried about those [Jason Aldean] fans destroying hedges. People don’t respect them, and that’s our biggest concern.”
Apart from the hedges, which need to be carefully removed, regrown and replaced, Pauley believes the field will not suffer too badly for the show.
“The field is gonna be ok. It’s just dirt and grass,” he said. “Just. Dirt. And grass. It will be ok. I promise.”
As he sees it, for a private event of this sort to be made a regular affair, it is not damage to the field that is an issue, but the logistics. The fibreglass panels being laid out on the turf for the April 13 concert will most likely smother the grass, which will then have to be completely removed and replaced. This happens every year before the football season begins anyway, and Pauley’s staff is well equipped to handle this situation. But if the turf replacement was to take place more often, it would mean an extra $300,000 each time, resulting in financial loss, not gain, for the university.
But can it still be made to work?
“I think it can,” Pauley said. “Maybe once every other year. If you want to throw a concert in there every other year, help the people in Athens, bring another venue in there, hey, that’s great! How about it? Do it. Because my job is to fix it. That’s what I do.”
And although the concert this weekend has been called “the first and the last” of its kind at Sanford Stadium, Smith is excited for the possibilities of more taking place.
“It would be very significant to the Athens economy,” she said. “We are hoping that everybody is pleased with how this concert goes and they’re going to want to host more.”
Barbe maintains his scepticism. He seriously doubts that the hopes Smith expresses are likely to materialize, and adds that even if university authorities were to be open to negotiating more shows at Sanford Stadium, it would be a long shot.
“It would depend on the artist,” he explained. “There aren’t that many that can sell 60,000 tickets in a market the size of Atlanta. I think there would be artists every now and then who would utilize it, but it would have to be the right fit for the university to do it. To the music industry in Athens, it might put us more on the map of some industry people, and might make Athens a more desirable location for a potential music festival.”
A different kind of history is being made between the hedges, come Saturday, for the Sanford Stadium, for Georgia fan Jason Aldean and for the university itself. The question remains whether Saturday will make history for Athens too.