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Television Money Driving Rise of Neutral Site College Football Games

Ronald Martinez

In recent years, neutral site games have become increasingly popular in college football. At first glance, it's easy to see why - big names playing big games:  Wisconsin/LSU, Alabama/West Virginia, Florida State/Oklahoma State. But there's one thing I haven't been able to understand:  why on a neutral field?

Why isn't Wisconsin playing in Baton Rouge this season?  Why aren't West Virginia and Alabama playing in Tuscaloosa?  Why isn't Florida State playing in Tallahassee?   Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez wonders the same thing.  He tried to schedule LSU in a home and home, but LSU would only agree to two neutral site games.  So one's in Houston and the other is in Green Bay.

Houston's NRG Stadium holds 71,054 while Lambeau Field now holds 80,978.  In comparison, Tiger Stadium holds 102,321 and Camp Randall Stadium holds 80,321.  So playing the games away from campus means fewer tickets for sale...and thus less ticket revenue.  So what's the attraction of playing the game away from campus?

It gets more curious, as Wisconsin and Alabama will play next year in the Cowboys' Classic.  Nick Saban talked about why Alabama hasn't played a non-conference home-and-home series since 2010:

"And from a business standpoint and a financial standpoint, they're much more beneficial than playing home and home with someone because we get paid every year, not just the year we play at home. So it's twice as good from a business standpoint."

Stop and think about this statement for a moment. Saban says that Alabama makes much more money playing at neutral sites than they do playing a home and home.  In a home and home game, the home team pockets all of the ticket and concession revenue, and pays a moderate appearance fee to the visiting team.  But when Saban says it's "twice as good" at neutral sites, that implies that the revenue at a single neutral site game is roughly equivalent to the revenue generated at their own stadium.

So how do neutral sites generate double the revenue of a game on campus?  It's not ticket sales; stadiums are smaller.  Are ticket prices higher?  For Florida State/Oklahoma State tickets, prices range from $85 to $300.  That would account for much of the difference, though one could argue that schools could charge more for big name matchups.  I'm still not sure that completely explains the difference either.

Scott Dochterman of the Cedar Rapids Gazette finally located the missing link in a memo from Jim Delaney regarding neutral site games. Most people read it as an endorsement, but overlook the conditions Delaney places on them:

Delany's letter, which was obtained by The Gazette, highlighted the league's support for neutral sites provided at least half of the series occur within the Big Ten footprint and under the league's television agreements. Delany wrote an arrangement would be "disapproved" if a Big Ten game was not designated as the home squad in at least half the games or if it was a one-game event that took place outside the league's television umbrella.

Note that Delaney's primary concern is with keeping the television rights with the Big Ten. That's important to note because all of these neutral site games are being organized by ESPN.  If these games are being produced outside of existing broadcast deals - or with special supplements on top of existing deals - that's the missing link that explains how these neutral site games make business sense for schools.

But do these neutral site games make sense for fans? For the fans who watch on television, it's a no-brainer. Of course they are.  It doesn't matter whether the game is originating from Houston, Madison, Green Bay, or Baton Rouge to the guy on his couch.

It's a completely different matter for the fans who attend and the communities that lose the influx of visitors. And is the atmosphere for the game better in an NFL stadium as opposed to a college campus?  I suspect not.

As a long-time season ticketholder of Nebraska football, I'm all in favor of Nebraska playing big games, and specifically on campus.  I'm not opposed to neutral site games except when the neutral site game comes in lieu of a game in Lincoln.  The 1998 game at Arrowhead Stadium was the perfect example of the right kind of neutral site game; it was officially an Oklahoma State home game.  The now-cancelled Northern Illinois game at Chicago's Soldier Field would have also been a good neutral site game; two games in Lincoln and one in Chicago.

Would I like the Huskers to play in a Cowboys Classic in Dallas?  Not really.  I'd love the matchup, but I also recognize that Nebraska always strives to play a big name opponent each season, and play at least one of those games in Lincoln.  So would I like a single game in Dallas instead of a game in Lincoln?  Nope.  Say Alabama were interested in playing a series in Kansas City and New Orleans.  Would that be acceptable?  I'd lean against, because that would be a game that more fans could attend if it were held in Lincoln.  Bigger stadium, closer to fans, closer to students.

Isn't that what college football is supposed to be about anyway?