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Even if Sanford Stadium capacity returns to normal this fall, there’ll be one big change: No more paper tickets.

Pooch kicks: Ticket or leave it, and a loyal Dawg is gone

The UGA Athletic Association is approaching the fall football season with the assumption that it once again will be able to welcome 92,746 fans to watch the Dawgs in Athens.

Of course, we won’t know for some time whether that’s a realistic scenario, considering the surprise twists and turns this pandemic has been known to make. 

Fans will have to download digital tickets to their smartphones, rather than flash the printed variety used in the past. (University of Georgia)

But, regardless of whether Georgia football games this fall are played before a full house at Sanford Stadium, or with last season’s socially distanced capacity of 20,524 fans, one change wrought by the pandemic is sticking around: Admission to the games will be by digital tickets only. 

UGA first went with all-digital tickets for last season’s games in Athens and is doing so again for this year’s G-Day game, planned for April 17, as well as the regular season this fall.

An email will be sent to ticket buyers in August with a link to access their digital tickets, the athletic association said. Before you arrive at the game, you must save your mobile tickets to your Apple wallet or Google Pay app on your phone. Tickets will be scanned only off your phone at the gate; you can’t print out the digital tickets and present a paper copy at the gate. 

You’ll still be able to transfer tickets to another patron, through your online ticket account. 

And, in fact, if you’re looking to sell or give away tickets for a game you don’t plan on attending, transferring electronic tickets should be easier than having to arrange to hand off paper tickets in person, or by mail.

However, the change does mean that, if you don’t have access to a smartphone, you’re out of luck.

Why go to digital tickets? Here’s the athletic association’s rationale: “Secure digital tickets provide the safest, most convenient and flexible way to manage tickets, while increasing protection against fraud. Digital tickets also greatly reduce the risk of lost, stolen, or forgotten tickets.”

Still, some fans are a bit hot under the collar about the change. One of them is Steve Short of Americus, a season ticket holder for more than 30 years, who contacted me to vent.

“I know a lot of people are angry,” Short said. He would like to see fans offered the option of two ways to enter the stadium: a digital ticket on their phone, or a traditional paper ticket that also can be scanned (as was done in the past).

But, Short lamented, “I’m not sure the new athletic director and the people in the ticket office are listening.” When he called the ticket office recently, it took him a while to get through to a live voice. 

“I finally got a lady to answer,” he said, and “I expressed my discontent to her, not that it will do any good.”

Steve said he’d also heard from a friend in Newnan who is “so angry that he has told me he is not renewing” his block of eight season tickets. 

If you want a souvenir ticket for a special game, such as a visit by Notre Dame, you’ll have to order one at an extra charge. (University of Georgia)

I passed along Short’s complaint to the UGA Athletic Association, and got back this response:

““We want to work with our donors by providing customer service engagement throughout this process by helping our donors troubleshoot this learning curve. The transition to mobile ticketing was meant to enhance one’s game day experience by providing an ease of transferability, which includes any number of tickets on a ticket holder’s account and also parking passes — something that was not able to be transferred in the past.”

The UGA statement also points out that, “With the COVID-19 pandemic being an ongoing situation, this transition helps provide a higher level of safety for ticket holders and the game day ticket scanners as it cuts down on touch points while also reducing the risk of fraud from resellers and eliminating the possibility of lost or forgotten tickets.”

The athletic association added: “It is of utmost importance for our department to provide a high level of customer support to those who are uncomfortable making this transition. So, please reach out to the Ticket Office or the Georgia Bulldog Club if you need help with this transition. We are more than willing to walk donors through this process and ensure that they get access to their tickets in order to get into the games in a safe and timely fashion.”

The UGA Athletics Ticket Office is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, and it can be reached by phone at 706- 542-1231, Ext. 2. You also can email them at gatickets@sports.uga.edu. And, season ticket holders can call the Georgia Bulldog Club at 706-542-9220, or email bulldogclub@sports.uga.edu.

One last issue that Short raised was the fact that a lot of fans collect their game tickets. “I love paper tickets to hold on to, even have framed later,” he said.

However, there’s good news for Steve on that count: Replica souvenir tickets to commemorate each game will be available — at an additional cost of $3.50 each.

For more information on the ticket change, go to the Digital Tickets page at georgiadogs.com.

Remembering a former Athens, Atlanta sports editor

A lot of folks in Athens, Atlanta and the world of journalism were saddened this week by news from Cambodia that John Futch died Thursday, not quite 2 weeks after suffering a brain injury in a fall. He was 75.

Wherever he was, former Athens Daily News and Atlanta Journal sports editor John Futch would find a place where he could follow the Dawgs. (John Futch Facebook page)

Futch had retired to Cambodia after a career in which he served as sports editor at the Athens Daily News, executive sports editor of The Atlanta Journal, and in news editing positions at newspapers in Florida and California. He was so beloved by the people he’d worked with that they’d hurriedly raised more than $25,000 in a GoFundMe effort to help with medical expenses. But, unfortunately, time ran out.

Johnny (as he was still called by those he worked with in Athens and Atlanta), grew up on a farm in Berrien County, loved country music, was a 1967 graduate of UGA, and served in Vietnam (winning the Bronze Star) before returning to a career in newspapers. While working alongside future legend Lewis Grizzard at the Daily News, he hired a lot of young talent, many of whom now consider him one of their heroes.

I asked veteran AJC sportswriter Tim Tucker about Futch. “Johnny hired me at the Athens Daily News when I was 16 years old,” Tim said. “I learned so much from him, both in Athens, and later when he was at The Atlanta Journal. He was a mentor and a friend to me and to so many other aspiring sportswriters. He had high journalistic standards, but was willing to let young reporters learn on the job, always making the work fun and offering encouragement and support.”

Bill Bryant, whom I’ve known since we were pre-kindergarteners in Sunday School, also worked with Futch in Athens and Atlanta. “He was a very good newspaper man and an even better man,” Bill said. “Kind, sensitive, generous. He was proud of the young reporters whom he mentored and nurtured, in Athens, Atlanta, West Palm and Long Beach.”

After serving in the Vietnam War, John Futch returned to the Athens Daily News in in the early 1970s to run the sports department. (John Futch Facebook page)

That doesn’t mean he was a pushover. One time, journalist-turned-novelist Phil Williams recalled, a reporter turned in a piece of copy in Athens and “Johnny fixed him with a stern glare and then set the copy on fire and dropped it in his metal trash can, and told him to do it again, and much better.”

Tucker also said that, as sports editor of the Daily News, Futch “was committed to providing thorough coverage of UGA football and basketball, but I’ve always remembered that he was equally passionate about covering other UGA sports, men’s and women’s. He’d see to it that the tennis, golf, swimming and diving, baseball, track and field, gymnastics and other programs got extensive and prominent coverage, too.”

Another longtime friend of mine, Ben Anderson, agreed. “Although Georgia football was understandably front and center in the sports coverage Johnny so ably directed, he was a great champion of what were labeled ‘minor’ sports. The same goes for women’s sports and female athletes at a time when they were generally ignored by most sports editors and directors.”

 “When Title IX was enacted in 1972, prohibiting sex-based discrimination in schools and education programs, Johnny made sure UGA’s women’s teams received fair coverage in the Athens Daily News,” Bryant added. “Some days, a women’s volleyball story and photo layout dominated our sports pages. Did he sometimes overplay those events? Maybe. But Johnny had a big heart, and he appreciated an underdog.”

Bill also told me that Futch used to play tennis with UGA legend Dan Magill during his years in Athens, and he loved to imitate Magill’s honey-dripping Southern drawl.

Recalled Doug Vinson: “Growing up in Athens, I loved reading his stories. Since I was one of Coach Dan Magill’s ball boys for tennis tournaments … I really enjoyed Johnny’s stories about the exploits of the UGA tennis teams, when the crowds packed the tennis stands in the ‘70s and barked and howled for players … just like they were in Sanford Stadium.”

Two things about Futch remained the same during his retirement years: He was outspoken, on subjects ranging from politics to sports to movies, and he still loved the Georgia Bulldogs. 

Country music lover John Futch wore a Georgia cap, whether he was living in California or Cambodia. (John Futch Facebook page)

The latter sometimes was a challenge on the other side of the world. As he noted in a Facebook post at the beginning of the last football season, “Yikes! Just noticed that Georgia-Arkansas is at 3 Sunday morning. Good thing I’m an insomniac.”

Charlie Hayslett, who also worked with Futch, told me that, “Once he moved to Cambodia, he found a bar where he could go in the middle of the night to watch Georgia games.”

Charlie also said that, legend has it, Johnny had a pair of used athletic socks given to him by Herschel Walker that he’d never washed, though that may be apocryphal.

I wasn’t a close friend of Futch, but I’d known him casually at the AJC, and we’d corresponded through Facebook over the past couple of years about UGA and Athens stuff.

Futch definitely wasn’t shy about letting you know what he thought of certain Southern sports legends. He was a fan of Vince Dooley and Auburn’s Shug Jordan. Not so much, Paul “Bear” Bryant. 

As he recalled in a Facebook post, after having interviewed Jordan in Athens and getting a handwritten thank-you note from the Auburn coach, he had a rather different encounter at Sanford Stadium with the Bear. “He looked down his nose at me, turned to his PR guy Charley Thornton, and asked him, ‘Who is this little pissant?’

“Years later, when the Bear died, I called Furman Bisher to tell him. There was a pause, and then Furman said, ‘Praise the lord.’”

After retiring in 2010, Futch’s return to Southeast Asia was inspired by his close friendship with Peter Chhun, the founder of Hearts Without Boundaries, a nonprofit working with children in Cambodia.  

“His was quite a journey, from South Georgia to Southeast Asia,” Anderson said, “but there’s no doubt that Athens and UGA held a special place in his big heart.”

As Bryant put it, “Johnny brought us all along, never in a heavy-handed way, as some editors seem to enjoy, but gently, as a big brother would have. Had he been my big brother, I could not have loved him more.” 

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