For years, Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt pushed the NFL to move conference championships to a neutral venue. Each time Hunt took ownership of the proposal, the owner voted it down.
With Hunt’s Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills each one win away from the first-ever neutral-site conference title game, Hunt’s vision could be on the way to becoming a reality.
The premature public announcement that Bills and Chiefs fans bought 50,000 tickets in 24 hours becomes circumstantial evidence that the league is considering holding all championship games at neutral venues. Privately, we found direct evidence of the NFL’s intentions.
Within the league office, the interest in title games on neutral sites has become very real. The NFL envies the atmosphere of big college bowl games, where a 50/50 mix of fans are decked out in team colors. It’s one thing about college football that doesn’t fully replicate pro football.
The Super Bowl, which has been played at a neutral venue since its inception (the last two Super Bowls happened to be played at the home stadium of one of the two teams), lacks the same atmosphere as a major college bowl game. The audience itself at a Super Bowl is often too neutral. Many who attend a Super Bowl do so for the experience and because they can afford it. Also for the fans of the teams that qualify, two weeks before kick off is too late to score tickets – aside from the limited number available for each franchise.
For a conference championship game at a neutral venue, tickets would presumably be treated the same way they were distributed for this year’s potential test run: half to one team’s season ticket holders, half to the other’s season ticket holders.
It’s one thing for some within the league power structure to want championship games in neutral venues. It’s another for at least 24 owners to vote for it. But even if the Bills and Chiefs fail to make the next round this year, the league’s decision to tout ticket sales becomes the basis for the NFL to sell the opportunity to owners and fans (many of whom are not interested in a championship game at a neutral venue) as innovative and groundbreaking and the next step in the growth of the game, bringing two more of the main events to different cities and stadiums each year.
It doesn’t hurt that cities will jockey (and pay) for the privilege of hosting conference championships.
Yes, it robs the higher seed of the opportunity to host the game, one of the very real benefits of earning a higher spot in the playoff tree. It also affects part of the home team’s profit. But not as much as a regular home game.
While, as we understand it, the team hosting a conference championship is currently reimbursed for their expenses (no more than 15 percent of gross ticket revenue), the rest of the money goes to the league for distribution to all teams. The only real profit for hosting such games comes from parking, concessions and some additional hospitality.
Fans, in theory, won’t like it. If it happens this year, fans will see it – and the league will incite it relentlessly. Even if that’s not enough to influence public opinion, public opinion hasn’t stopped the competition from making other innovations.
Fans did not like the export of regular season home games to Europe. And it’s been happening and growing for 15 years.
What are we going to do, not watch the conference championship games? The league knows we can’t get enough of the NFL, and our appetites won’t diminish in the slightest if/when conference championships are played at a neutral venue.