As TV contracts have become more lucrative in college football, the concept of the neutrally sited regular-season game has become more popular, a phenomenon that naturally leads us to question its place in the sport.
Indeed, isn’t what lies at the very foundation of collegiate athletics—one of the key components that sets it apart from its professional counterpart—the fact that its games are sited on campus and that its stands are filled with passionate fans who have emptied themselves from dorm rooms and apartment complexes nearby?
Yes, it’s all about the rabid 18- to 23-year-old home fanbase: bare-chested, war-painted and sometimes lubricated zealots who combine to make the college football game an entirely different atmosphere from that of the NFL.
And therefore, if you take away the element of accessibility by moving the regular-season contest to a neutral site as opposed to the campus location, then this is an age group that doesn’t normally have the funding to travel and behave in the same frenzied manner, or in the same massive numbers.
It’s logical: If you move the game to a neutral location, you lose the two key elements that make the college game experience, well, the college game experience.
First, you sacrifice the sense of having a real “home” crowd, which means there is no local fanbase whipped into a frenzy by the tradition, home colors, etc. unique to each and every FBS program in the land.
Second, you forfeit the game being a true college game by virtue of selling the now “hot” tickets (more attractive to a wider audience due to the TV hype) to corporate folks and people with lots of cash rather than the fans who make the game at the regular venues so unique.
In this case, it’s precisely the same sort of thing that happens at the Super Bowl and the NCAA Men’s Final Four, both stellar events that take a bit of a hit from a “live” perspective because the crowd is “dumbed down” by the nature of the “hugeness” of the scope and the neutral site.
But, before we poo-poo the idea of the neutrally sited college football game, it’s important to look at the flip side of the equation and investigate the plus side of having teams square off in a Switzerland-type environment.
Before taking this approach, it’s important to take our analysis one step further by identifying the two types of neutral-sited games that currently dominate the college football landscape: the regularly scheduled rivalry game and the blockbuster one-hit wonder.
Since these two types of contests are in reality as different as can be, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of siting them neutrally separately prior to deciding whether or not to deem them “sacrilegious” in nature.
Neutrally Sited Rivalry Games
When referring to rivalry games that are played at a neutral site, we’re talking about contests that have long been held at a third-party location, even if the site changes.
Examples are the Red River Rivalry between Texas and Oklahoma played at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas; the Army-Navy series, which currently switches off between Philadelphia, Pa., and Baltimore, Md.; and the Florida-Georgia series, which is played each year in Jacksonville, Fla.
Each of these longstanding grudge matches has held its annual meeting at a neutral location for the bulk of its history.
To illustrate, the Red River Rivalry hasn’t been played away from Dallas since 1922 when the Longhorns bested the Sooners 32-7 in Norman, Okla.; the Army-Navy game hasn’t been sited at either academy since the Midshipmen won at West Point in 1943; and other than a home-and-away series in 1994 and 1995, Florida and Georgia haven’t met outside of Jacksonville since 1932.
Really, these established affairs are such a regular part of the schedule for fans on both sides of the equation that it could be considered “sacrilegious” to shift them to a series of traditional home-and- away meetings.
Indeed, these games are as much a part of the tradition of the regular season as any other part of the program.
But, that said, attempting to force a neutral location on a matchup that formerly has played at home and then away on a regular basis is another matter entirely.
This unnatural event of “forcing” has occurred recently in three distinct sets of circumstances that have come either with or without the component of the neutral site, which at least on paper supposedly amps up the importance of the game itself.
First, it has happened where conferences have brought in new members and are trying to manufacture rivalries between the new programs and those that already exist.
Second, it has occurred where conferences have split into divisions and are trying to create some buzz between teams who haven’t really bothered with one another previously.
And last, it has transpired in the case of a league that has lost a valuable member and needs to pump up some hype around an alternate clash to replace a rivalry game that was lost in a realignment move.
To illustrate this “forced” approach, think of Texas Tech and Baylor, which have tried to create some hubbub around their longstanding series since 2009 by playing in Cowboys Stadium and the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas.
For an interconference example, we can look to Texas A&M and Arkansas, who, prior to the Aggies' move to the SEC in 2012, met three times consecutively in Cowboys Stadium to generate a bit of state-to-state angst.
In the case of these “manufactured” rivalries played at neural locations, the word “sacrilegious” seems more suitable because the desired outcome of two loathing fanbases would be better achieved by utilizing the traditional home-and-away series.
Indeed, a turf war is always a superior foundation for a real hate-fest, especially when you’re dealing with 18- to 23-year-old kids with limited funds.
These guys and gals will travel across campus to the game, but they may not plop down the cash necessary for the road-trip cost, the motel and the tickets to see Baylor vs. Texas Tech.
Blockbuster One-Time Neutrally Sited Games
The flip side of the regularly scheduled game at a neutral site is obviously the one-time affair, which in today’s climate, most likely comes in the form of an early-season blockbuster-type contest.
Though when you think of these types of game, it’s easy to classify them as “modern” and throw out examples such as LSU and Oregon in 2011 and Alabama and Michigan in 2012—both played in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas—the idea of an opening-weekend neutrally sited smash hit actually goes back a bit further.
To begin with, there was the “Kickoff Classic,” which lasted from 1983 to 2002 and hosted a wide variety of big-name teams at the old Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. This annual event literally “kicked off” the season by being played a full weekend before the regular season started.
Then there was the West Coast answer to the Kickoff Classic, the “Pigskin Classic,” which lasted from 1990 to 2002 and featured, again in late August, teams from across the land in Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, Calif.
Though most of these games included a Western-based squad such as BYU, Stanford, USC or Fresno State clashing with a team from somewhere else in the nation, this was still a contest that had a coast-to-coast scope.
After dropping the idea of a regularly scheduled kickoff classic after 2002, the Chick-fil-A-branded “College Kickoff” got under way in 2008 with a game between Alabama and Clemson, and since then has welcomed a premier Week 1 matchup each season to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga.
This annual affair is booked out through 2015, meaning it’s a neutral-sited shindig with a bright future.
Most recently, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has entered his new super-stadium into the mix with the “Cowboys Classic,” which has been in operation since 2008.
Not surprisingly, Jones has taken the concept to an entirely different level in terms of the quality of the competition, hype, etc.: His calendar is also booked through 2015.
In terms of whether or not these regularly scheduled series of neutrally sited “kickoff” events are “sacrilegious,” really it’s a tough call.
On one hand, there is the upside of the games, which usually feature two Top 25 teams squaring off, building real excitement and momentum coming into a new season.
The idea of these contests being launch pads for getting a new campaign of college ball under way is amplified now that we live in a world where most programs stack the beginning of their schedules with “warm-up” games against FCS foes and non-BCS opponents.
Yes, these games are often the jewels of the early-season schedule.
On the flip side, these games, though thrilling and lucrative, are more “showcases” than true college football games where one huge throng of home fans greets and plays obnoxious guest to the visiting crowd.
Yes, lots of folks tune in on TV, but the essence of a true college game is lost somewhere in the translation.
At the end of the day, it reminds me a lot of what the BCS has done to college football: The TV numbers look good, the cash is flowing in, but still, is this really college football?
Is this the best we can do?
Beyond the kickoff-series games played at neutral locales, there is also the handful of games that pop up that are played at a third-party location on their own accord.
These are the one-time wonders in the truest sense of the word.
Examples of this phenomenon are Notre Dame’s meeting with Navy in Dublin, Ireland, in Week 1 of the 2012 season and Boise State squaring off with Virginia Tech at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., in Week 1 of the 2010 campaign.
Much like the kickoff-series games, these contest may generate interest and perhaps some extra spark due to their neutral siting, but instead, why not treat the home fans and college football in general to another dose of what makes institutional gridiron so unique?
Indeed, is it just me or is the roar of the crowd and the beat of the band a few full notches lower when you move the college game to an NFL stadium in the name of the almighty dollar?
If anyone needs one final far-fetched example for why neutral-sited games—other than those involving longstanding rivalries—don’t work in college football, try this on for size.
Yes, let’s harken back to the delightful Coca-Cola Classic, which was played as a regular-season game in late November or early December from 1977 to 1993.
In case you’ve forgotten where this neutrally sited wonder was played, how about Tokyo, Japan?
Yes, nothing says college football tradition, atmosphere and crazed fan-da-monium like those 18 games played in the Land of the Rising Sun...