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Annual neutral-site conference championship games? Please no, NFL

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No offense to Buffalo and Kansas City, but if you’re a fan of the other 30 NFL teams, you might want to root for the Bills or Chiefs, who will lose in the divisional round this weekend to Cincinnati or Jacksonville, respectively.

It’s not personal; Josh Allen-Patrick Mahomes for the AFC title would be incredible.

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It’s just that if the Chiefs Bills come to fruition, the NFL will play the AFC Championship game for the first time at a neutral venue, Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. This was prompted by the cancellation of the Buffalo-Cincinnati game after Bill’s safety Damar Hamlin passed out.

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The NFL did not feel that home field advantage could be fairly determined, as Buffalo played one less game than KC. (The other three possible matches will play as usual – Jacksonville v Buffalo, Cincinnati v Kansas City, or Jacksonville v Cincinnati.)

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It also gives the NFL, whether it’s convenient or not, an opportunity to try out a concept that is sure to benefit the league through its many dedicated fans and home markets.

On Friday, the league sent out a celebratory announcement that both teams’ season ticket holders had purchased 50,000 tickets a day for the Atlanta game, if it takes place. The press release said executives and bills are working with “season pass members to ensure priority access when available.”

The league is clearly excited about a game that might not even happen, and if all you care about is revenue (and we’re talking about the NFL), that makes sense.

As ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio stated, “The groundwork is being laid for the next NFL strategy to… squeeze more golden eggs out of the goose.”

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - NOVEMBER 06: General view of the field during the playing of the national anthem before the game between Los Angles Chargers and Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on November 6, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Adam Hagee/Getty Images)
Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta will become a neutral venue for the Bills-Chiefs AFC Championship game if both teams win this weekend. (Adam Hagie/Getty Images)

Look, NFL playoff games are usually an incredible experience. They are almost impossible to mess up. You can play it in a high school stadium in Alaska and you’ll be fine.

However, they must never leave the higher seeded team’s home stadium.

The reasons are many, even if you do not take into account that neutral sites work only for the corporate circle and the richest fans.

• Playing a conference championship on no man’s land reduces the importance of the regular season, which has already been eroded by an ever-longer season. Home field value in a title game, along with a goodbye in the first round, is the reward for the #1 seed. The NFL shouldn’t take that away.

• The atmosphere on a neutral Super Bowl venue is almost always devoid of the unbridled passion of a playoff home game. While fans of both teams can create some issues, there are also more unattached fans and corporate ticket holders. And the fun before the game can’t be duplicated.

• Taking the game out of home markets is a big loss for these communities, including local businesses and stadium workers. By choosing Atlanta, the NFL signaled that the decision on where to play neutral championship games could follow the general principles of Super Bowl selection (i.e., warm-weather locations or domes in certain cities).

NFL stadiums are almost always paid for with public funds. It’s a one-way deal, but one of the few financial returns is that in-game days are a huge source of income. Removing such a large stadium from, say, Western New York, where the new Bills Stadium will handle approximately $850 million in taxpayer money, not to mention some locals traveling to spend discretionary money in another city – it is a cruel bait and substitute.

But mostly it’s for the fans.

The NFL is already the only major professional league to play a championship at a neutral venue. In other sports, fans may know by buying season tickets that they will have the opportunity to watch the final game, or at least part of the final series played in front of them.

This is not the case in the NFL, where only the wealthiest fans can afford a trip to the Super Bowl. Taking the semi-finals away from local fans and hosting two more mini-super bowls only exacerbates the problem.

One of the best things about the NFL is that season ticket packages are relatively affordable. The average price of a 2022 season ticket in Buffalo was $113. An average of 10 regular and preseason games and a package ($1,113) is achievable for many working and middle class fans. And this is on average. Cheaper options are available.

Yes, there’s parking, a per-seat license fee, and more, but it’s better than buying 40 or so NBA or NHL games, let alone 81 MLB games.

However, these average fans are more likely to be left out of the rare championship game. When professional sports teams talk about “priority access” they are referring to customers who buy the most expensive seats and/or are willing to pay extra to be considered “priority”.

If the NFL split its 50,000 “priority access” tickets with Kansas City and Buffalo season ticket holders, then each team would receive about 25,000 seats. But Bills, for example, has 60,000 subscriptions.

It’s the NFL that takes care of the highest paying customers (usually club level ticket holders) in the two franchises while leaving the majority of the lower paying season ticket holders out of the game. That’s a lot of non-priority customers.

This increases the value — and potential cost — of the “priority access” that each team can charge fans. Site-neutral games may also allow for a segment of corporate or league-controlled venues, concessions from host cities, and other forms of sponsorship.

But not only will you need to spend money to get “priority access,” you’ll also need to spend money to get to a game with a neutral site, including the chance of missing work the next day. And if you don’t have season tickets but want to splurge on a big game, add in the travel costs as well.

Many people will gladly do it – no one denies the demand.

It’s just not going to be a middle or working-class fan who attends games week after week, year after year, in the hope that their team will host the occasional championship game.


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