Annual neutral-site championship games? Please no, NFL

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

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

It’s just that if Chiefs-Bills come to fruition, the NFL will, for the first time, stage the AFC Championship Game at a neutral site, Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. This was necessitated by the cancellation of the Buffalo-Cincinnati game after Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed.

The NFL didn’t believe home-field advantage could be fairly determined since Buffalo played one fewer game than KC. (The other three potential matchups would proceed as normal — Jacksonville at Buffalo, Cincinnati at Kansas City or Jacksonville at Cincinnati.)

It also provides the NFL, conveniently or not, an opportunity to test out a concept which would undoubtedly be profitable for the league at the expense of many loyal fans and home markets.

On Friday, the league sent out a celebratory statement about how season ticket holders of both teams purchased 50,000 tickets in a day for the Atlanta game, if it takes place. The press release heralded that the Chiefs and Bills were working with “Season Ticket Members to provide priority access, subject to availability.”

The league is clearly amped up about a game that may not even occur, and if all you care about is revenue (and this is the NFL we are talking about) it makes sense.

As Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk stated, “the foundation is further being put in place for the NFL’s next strategy for … squeezing more golden eggs from the goose.”

Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium will serve as the neutral site host of a Bills-Chiefs AFC Championship Game, if both teams win this weekend. (Adam Hagy/Getty Images)

Look, NFL playoff games are generally incredible experiences. They are almost impossible to screw up. You could play it on a high school field in Alaska and it’d be fine.

However, they should never move out of the home stadium of the higher-seeded team.

The reasons are myriad even before considering how neutral sites only work for the corporate set and the wealthiest of fans.

• A neutral site conference championship game diminishes the importance of a regular season that has already been diminished by the ever elongating season. The value of home field in the title game, along with a first-round bye, is a reward for the No. 1 seed. The NFL shouldn’t take that away.

• The atmosphere at the neutral site Super Bowl almost always lacks the unbridled passion of a home playoff game. While having fans of both teams can create some back and forth, there are also more unattached fans and corporate ticket holders. And the revelry of pregame tailgates can’t be duplicated.

• Taking the game out of home markets is a major loss for those communities, including local businesses and stadium workers. By choosing Atlanta, the NFL signaled that the decision on where to stage neutral championship games might follow the general principles of Super Bowl selections (ie warm weather locations or domes in certain cities).

NFL stadiums are almost always paid for with public funds. It’s a lopsided deal, but among the few financial clawbacks is that game days generate enormous revenue. Taking such a big one away from, say, Western New York, where a new Bills stadium will command some $850 million in taxpayer money, not to mention having some locals travel to spend discretionary money in another city, is a brutal bait and switch.

Mainly, though, this is about the fans.

The NFL is already the only major professional league that stages its championship on a neutral site. In the other sports, a fan can know by purchasing season tickets that they will have an opportunity to watch the final game, or at least parts of the final series, played in front of them.

That isn’t the case with the NFL, where only the most well-heeled fans can afford to travel to the Super Bowl. Taking the semifinals away from local fans and making two more mini-Super Bowls just adds to the problem.

One of the best things about the NFL is that season ticket packages are comparatively affordable. The average 2022 season ticket price in Buffalo was $113. Counting an average of 10 regular and preseason games and a package ($1,113) is attainable to many working and middle-class fans. And that’s the average. Cheaper options are available.

Yes there is parking, seat licensing fees and more, but it’s better than having to buy 40 or so NBA or NHL games, let alone up to 81 in MLB.

Yet those average fans are the ones who would be most likely priced out of the rare championship game. When pro sports teams start talking about “priority access,” they are talking about customers who purchase the most expensive seats and/or are willing to pay extra to be considered a “priority.”

If the NFL split its 50,000 “priority access” tickets with the season ticket holders of Kansas City and Buffalo, then each team got about 25,000 seats. Yet the Bills, for example, have 60,000 season tickets.

This is the NFL taking care of the customers who pay the most (generally club level ticket holders) at two franchises while leaving the majority of season ticket holders, who pay less, out of the action. That’s a lot of non-prioritized customers.

That increases the value — and potential cost — for “priority access” that each team can charge fans. Neutral site games can also allow for a segment of corporate or league-controlled seats, bid concessions from host cities and other sponsorships.

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

Plenty of people will gladly do that — no one is denying the demand.

It just won’t be the middle or working class fan who dutifully attends games week after week, year after year, in hopes of their team hosting the occasional championship game.

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