The college football landscape is shifting dramatically these days, as conference alignments change at an unprecedented pace, and the new playoff selection process is forcing high-level football programs to rethink their entire scheduling strategies. And yet it's still a business (one with super cheap labor, but shhhh), so decisions can't be made strictly "for the good of the game"—they need to make financial sense, too.
With that in mind, it's not entirely a surprise to hear the latest quotes from athletic directors in the Big Ten. Per ESPN.com, some ADs wouldn't mind seeing conference games in brand new exotic locales:
"I would like to see more neutral sites in those scenarios," Smith told ESPN.com. "We've got a great stadium in Chicago, one in Detroit, one in Indianapolis, and now we have the East Coast. So I can see more neutral sites for conference games."
The Big Ten also discussed the possibility of using NFL stadiums and even Major League Baseball parks for big events to kick off the season when the Pac-12 scheduling alliance was announced. With that alliance dead, perhaps the conference could generate some early season buzz instead with league games at such sites.
"Neutral sites are great; those are just great opportunities," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips told ESPN.com. "They have to be in the right places and have the right matchups, but the fans have responded in a positive way to some of those neutral-site games. We need to listen to them and we need to pay attention to those things. We may not do everything that the fans want, but that’s what's made our game so great and more popular than it’s ever been."
The Northwestern AD's comments are to be expected; his team and Illinois were part of a wildly popular game at Wrigley Field in 2010—though with the whole snafu with field dimensions, one shouldn't expect to see another game there any time soon. Still, he saw a neutral field success, and he'd be a fool not to make note of that.
The comments coming from Gene Smith are surprising, however. Smith is the AD of a program that boasts one of the best home-field atmospheres in all of college football, to say nothing of just the Big Ten. So if he's dreaming of neutral site games, he'd better hope that they're in games where Ohio State would be the road team.
And really, this is what it's all about. If you want a neutral site conference game, you'd need to either A) get enough set up every year to balance out the home and away slates, or B) admit that scheduling equality isn't actually a priority. In a league that's ballooning to 14 members (and probably not stopping there), you're not exactly going to get equally difficult schedules for everybody, but at the very least, making sure that everyone has the same amount of home and away games should be a baseline.
And let's please not make this about money. Granted, everything is about money in college football, but it doesn't appear to be a valid concern here. Being a member of the Big Ten is incredibly lucrative, and that's not about to change anytime soon. But what really drives the money into colleges' wallets is simple: hosting football games.
Between the ticket sales, concessions, parking fees and other avenues for profit, an athletic department can expect several million dollars of revenue for every home game. The most lucrative neutral site deal might approach that level of money for each team, but let's be honest: The site hosting the game is going to get its fair share, too (otherwise, what's the point), and that's going to be money that doesn't stay in the conference.
But still, even if a team at a neutral site gets the money that it normally would from a home game, it's still doing so at the expense of fans and businesses in its home city. The reduced influx of visitors hits restaurants, hotels and other visitor-friendly businesses where the college is; that money just ends up in whichever big city that the game ends up in.
Moreover, the fans who normally go to the home games might go to the neutral site game if it's close enough. But it might not be. When Indiana moved a home game to Washington, D.C. (well, technically, Landover, Md.) in 2010, it wasn't doing so for its fans' sake. If anything, it was a blatant statement to Hoosiers fans that they weren't profitable enough. And yes, the irony of moving a football team's home from Indiana to Maryland, if only for one game, is deliciously rich.
Fans should not want the Big Ten to go back down that road. Athletic directors might see it as a "revenue opportunity" or whatever—especially if their home atmospheres aren't exactly electric—but unless there's a way to balance everyone's schedule and keep home games at home where they belong, this idea should be a non-starter.
There is one scenario in which this works, at least: the nine-game conference schedule. With that, if each team gets one neutral game, then four at home and four away, there's the right amount of balance. But even then, it's necessary to pick that neutral game wisely. Do you really want to take a fevered rivalry off-campus? What good would Michigan-Ohio State be if it were in Cleveland every year? Would Philadelphia seriously care about Penn State-Maryland?
This is a road fraught with pitfalls and problems—and it's not worth the Big Ten's time to go down it. Stay at home.
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