Force welcomed back to Gwinnett

DULUTH - Mark Williams felt "burned" when the Georgia Force left the Arena at Gwinnett Center for Atlanta's Philips Arena in 2005.

And he wasn't sure if he would ever watch the arena football team again.

Wednesday, though, he came to the Duluth venue to hear the news that the team would return to Gwinnett, where it played in 2003 and 2004.

"I was a big fan until they abandoned us," he said. "I'm glad to see them come back with a commitment."

Signing a 10-year contract with the Arena, Force president Dick Sullivan said he did want to show a commitment to the fans so they would come back with the team.

"That's a great place," he said of the venue. "It puts us in an arena on par with other arenas in the league. ... For our fans and for ourselves, it was important to have a jam-packed arena."

During a press conference to announce the move - the team's third in seven years - Sullivan said leaders liked the idea of bringing fans closer to the field and filling the seats. Philips Arena has 4,000 more seats than the 11,100-seat Gwinnett venue, but the facilities had similar ticket sales for the team.

The Gwinnett arena's 5,000 free parking spaces will create a tailgating atmosphere, Sullivan said, and it is closer to the Force's training facility in Flowery Branch.

"The economics here are more favorable," Sullivan added, although he did not give specifics on the deal with the arena.

County and arena officials welcomed the team back, pointing out that arena football was one of the sports the arena was designed to accommodate.

The Force was one of the first attractions at the facility when it opened in 2003. The arena is also home to the Gwinnett Gladiators minor league hockey team, the site of basketball tournaments and a prime concert venue. During Wednesday's press conference, fans began to arrive for a much-anticipated American Idol concert.

"I think it just puts us on an equal footing with places like Atlanta," said Commissioner Lorraine Green, a member of the convention and visitors bureau board. "It makes this a wonderful, family-friendly venue."

The two-time Southern Division champion team could bring even more notoriety to the venue, Sullivan said, since the team is working with ESPN on televising a game, possibly the season-opener in March.

"We'll showcase this building to the world," he said.

With events such as book drives, hunger drives and involvement in high school football, the Force promises to make a contribution to the community, and officials said the proposition is a win-win for both the team and the county.

"The business community here will be very supportive," convention and visitors bureau board chairman Richard Tucker said. "People have been excited. We're proud it's happening today."