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Annual championship games at neutral venues? 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 can hope the Bills or Chiefs 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 amazing.

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

The NFL did not believe that home field advantage could be fairly determined, as Buffalo played one game less than KC. (The other three potential fights would proceed as normal – Jacksonville in Buffalo, Cincinnati in Kansas City or Jacksonville in Cincinnati.)

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

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

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

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

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - NOVEMBER 06: Overview of the field during the national anthem before the game between Los Angles Chargers and Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on November 06, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Adam Hagy/Getty Images)

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

Look, NFL playoff games are usually amazing experiences. They are almost impossible to screw up. You could throw it on a school field in Alaska and it would be fine.

However, they must never leave the stadium of the highest ranked team.

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

• A neutral local conference championship game detracts from the importance of a regular season that has already been diminished by the lengthening season. The value of playing at home 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 Super Bowl venue often lacks the unbridled passion of a home playoff game. While having fans from both teams can create some back and forth, there are also more independent fans and corporate ticket holders. And the pre-game tailgate revelry cannot be duplicated.

• Taking the game out of domestic markets is a huge loss for these communities, including local businesses and stadium employees. In choosing Atlanta, the NFL signaled that the decision on where to host neutral championship games may follow the general principles of Super Bowl selections (i.e., 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 woes is the fact that matchdays bring in huge revenue. Taking such a huge size from, say, western New York, where a new Bills stadium will require an estimated $850 million in taxpayer money, not to mention some residents traveling to spend discretionary money in another city, is bait. brutal and an exchange.

Mostly though, this is about the fans.

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

That’s not the case in the NFL, where only the most affluent fans can travel to the Super Bowl. Taking the semifinals away from local fans and making two more mini-Super Bowls only 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. Averaging 10 regular and preseason games and a package ($1,113) is achievable for many working and middle-class fans. And this is the average. There are cheaper options.

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

However, these middling supporters are the ones likely to be excluded from the rare league game. When professional sports teams start talking about “priority access”, they are talking about customers who buy the most expensive seats and/or are willing to pay more to be considered “priority”.

If the NFL shared its 50,000 “priority access” tickets with Kansas City and Buffalo season ticket holders, each team would have about 25,000 seats. However, the Bills, for example, have 60,000 season tickets.

This is the NFL taking care of the higher paying customers (usually club-level ticket holders) at two franchises, leaving most of the lower paying season ticket holders out of the action. That’s a lot of unprioritized customers.

This increases the value – and potential cost – of the “priority access” that each team can charge fans. Neutral site games may also allow for a corporate or league-controlled seating segment, host city bids, and other sponsorship.

But not only would you have to spend to get “priority access”, you would also have to spend money to travel to the neutral 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, add in travel costs too.

Many people will gladly do this – no one is denying the demand.

It won’t just be the working-class or middle-class fan who dutifully attends games week after week, year after year, hoping that his team will host the occasional championship game.