0

County now a hub for pro sports

DULUTH - To say there wasn't a huge pro sports presence in Gwinnett when I was younger would be an understatement.

The county wasn't in its full blooming mode back then - which isn't too long ago, I'm only 34 - and there really wasn't a whole bunch going on here, period.

I could ride my bike across Ga. Highway 29 in Lilburn and not fear being struck by speeding motorists. I went on a fourth-grade field trip to see Gwinnett Place Mall under construction, and it was the only structure in sight. The area was still plenty rural, so sports fans usually had to go to Atlanta to see the Falcons, Braves, Hawks or (briefly) Flames.

Now the games are here, right in our own backyard.

A county some people in Atlanta used to consider the sticks is now a hub for the metro area's professional sports scene, second only to downtown Atlanta.

Tuesday's official announcement that the Braves are moving their Class AAA franchise from Richmond to Gwinnett for the 2009 season only embellishes the county's already packed sports resume.

Now we have AAA minor league baseball, the ECHL's Gwinnett Gladiators ice hockey team and the Arena Football League's Georgia Force all in one suburban county. Not to mention the Atlanta Vision of the ABA and another major pro event, the PGA Tour's AT&T Classic golf tournament, held at the TPC at Sugarloaf in Duluth.

The high school sports scene isn't too shabby either. Local high school teams have won 114 Georgia High School Association state championships - since 2000. And the number of youngsters involved in youth sports in the county is staggering.

In short, there are sports fans galore in Gwinnett. And pro teams are realizing that potential.

"I've been a proponent of (minor league baseball in Gwinnett)," said Gwinnett Gladiators general manager Steve Chapman, whose team won't compete much for fans because the seasons won't overlap. "I think it's a great market for it. It fits in well with us because it's a summer sport and we're a winter sport. Part of it is just the base. We've got almost 800,000 people here. From our perspective, North Fulton's only five miles away and Forsyth County's close.

"A lot of people don't realize there are more people here than in Birmingham, Ala."

As a kid, I knew Gwinnett was growing. I just didn't realize how big.

Neither did people younger than me, like Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur. But we're still enjoying the boom from the sports side.

"I know what Gwinnett County does and I know what we can provide," Francoeur said of the new Gwinnett Braves stadium. "It's going to be a first-class facility."

One of many.

Will Hammock can be reached via e-mail at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His regular column appears on Thursdays.