Home Sweet Neutral Site?

Opening week of the 2016 season was dubbed to be the best in the history of the sport. It delivered in a way that made the long offseason worth it. Upsets, overtimes, drama.

But, the made-for-TV, neutral site settings must go. They are a blemish on the sport that rob the die-hards from the best of what college football has to offer. While the games in question matched up good programs, the fact they played in an NFL stadium made them less than what they could’ve been.

College football Saturdays produce a mental image of campus, collegiate landmarks, alums coming home and the stadiums, those stadiums. Not the whitewashed, corporate arena that just so happens to host a football game on that particular day.

With the quality of teams on the slate, the probability of good contests was a virtual guarantee. Houston’s convincing upset over Oklahoma, Wisconsin’s slobberknocking win over LSU, Georgia’s rally to top North Carolina, all were competitive games in NFL environments.

Those contests were indeed entertaining, but they didn’t come close to providing the atmosphere that we witnessed during Auburn’s 4th-quarter flurry. Texas A&M and 100,000 strong Aggies welcomed in the new season by downing UCLA in a raucous Kyle Field den. And, was there a more energetic environment than in Austin as Texas knocked off Notre Dame in overtime? All three games were on campus, in front of the student body and die-hards, in those storied stadiums. That’s what we think of when we envision the sport.

With that said, there is a distinct difference between the ones we just watched last weekend and the traditional neutral site games like Florida-Georgia and Army-Navy. When an annual matchup has been played at a neutral site for decades, that’s not a neutral site game. That’s just where the game is played. Ole Miss-Florida State in Orlando is not the same as Oklahoma-Texas in the Cotton Bowl.

All About the Benjamins

Look, I’m not naive. I understand why the bean-counting bureaucrats choose to allow the networks to play the role of love broker. The administrators want to hoard as much money as possible and this approach allows them to do so without having to work at it. In essence, they look to their TV partners as an escort service – no effort to get the desired results.

Just call a TV executive and tell them you want to make some money and you’re willing to play anyone, as long as it’s a one-night stand. The exec then sets out to find an NFL stadium owner who wants to make some dough (hint: all of them). They agree on a catchy game title and then collaborate to lure a corporate sponsor to put their logo on it. Time to leave the money on the nightstand.

Here’s where things get contorted, though. During the constant athletics arms race, it’s difficult to find a school that hasn’t unveiled its pricey facilities upgrades. They are pouring millions of dollars into stadium improvements so fans will want to continue to attend campus home games.

As they expand seating capacity and add video screens the size of a city block, they fill their home non-conference schedules with teams I wouldn’t watch for free even if they played in my front yard. This philosophy reveals their devotion to revenue above all.

What about the customers – the fans?

There’s not a single fan who would attend or watch a game played in a sterile NFL stadium over a showdown on campus. The fan interest generates the existence for this entire spectacle and there is never a single decision made with them in mind. The bureaucrats only think about what they can milk them for.

There’s not an Alabama fan on the planet who wouldn’t have preferred for the Tide to take on USC in Bryant-Denny or the L.A. Coliseum. LSU and Wisconsin fans would rather have played their two-game series in Death Valley and Camp Randall. Georgia fans taking over Chapel Hill? How about a return game of the Heels going between the hedges?

Non-conference matchups provide schools the opportunity to showcase the university and the college town to a national TV audience. Neutral site games are primarily a chance to promote tourism to a big city.

The ones who make the biggest sacrifice are the tens of thousands of devoted fans who aren’t given the thank you of watching a big name opponent in their own stadium – or travel to a unique opposing school’s campus setting.

The Biggest Obstacle

At the heart of this issue is fear. Coaches act like rugged survivalists and are molders of men, but when it comes to scheduling, they are cowards.

For all of their postings of memorable mottos about adversity and perseverance, most coaches instruct their ADs to go out of their way to take the path of least resistance. They schedule as many cupcakes as possible because they’re afraid to face tougher competition and possibly lose. Then, when they do play a worthy opponent, they opt to limit the risk by playing at a neutral site.

Let’s look at Nick Saban, for example. He gets credit for playing Power Five opponents and everyone cheers him and Bama for their willingness to play those games. However, it’s empty praise. He’s only willing to play a Power Five regular season game if it’s a one-time thing at a neutral site. And, it’s always opening weekend, so he has 8 months to prepare his team. That’s a lot of “only ifs” for a guy who touts “the process” and a fan base that proclaims to be the standard.

If coaches demand to their athletic directors that they want to play a home-and-home series with a Power Five team, the ADs will absolutely make it happen. It would be good for the sport if Saban would man up and take that stance.

A Potential Solution

Coaches’ contracts are filled with incentives. Why not take this approach: Incentivize TV deals and/or coaches’ contracts based on the quality of the opponent and the location in which they play.

Schedule a Power 5 non-conference game – get paid. Play it in a campus setting – up the incentive. Make it a home-and-home – max the payout.

The Worst Is Yet to Come

The matchups that the neutral sites produce are better than the alternative of the cupcake non-conference slates that fans are forcefed. So, even though there is a better option for where most of the Week 1 spotlight games were played, at least they’re actually being played.

For as much as I dislike the NFL stadium setting, it’s far better than the stupidity of playing in a NASCAR venue. This week’s Tennessee-Virginia Tech game at Bristol Motor Speedway is even dumber than the games that are played overseas. More isn’t always better. Sometimes more is just more, which is what we’ll have on Saturday.

Labor Day Weekend was all that we envisioned. Competitive matchups between ranked opponents and traditional programs is how it should be. But, because the love of money is at the root, the bureaucrats will continue to give us the table scraps of what should be a gourmet meal.

E-mail Mark at mark[dot]fried[at]campuspressbox[dot]com or follow him on Twitter at @MarkCFried.

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Photo: thatlostdog–/Flickr.