Lure of big game alters NCAA football

WVU to line up for a $3.2 million reward against Alabama in season opener

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West Virginia and Alabama will be well-compensated when they open the 2014 football season in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at a neutral site, Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

There were myriad reasons for West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck to schedule the Mountaineers' Aug. 30 opener away from home for the first time since 2005, not least of which is the $3.2 million each team will receive for their participation. Both programs also will receive a $50,000 donation allocated toward the creation of an endowed scholarship.

Alabama has agreed to sell 31,000 tickets and West Virginia 25,000.

Terms of the deal are contained in contracts between the universities and Peach Bowl Inc., which stages the Chick-fil-A opener. The contracts were obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette through Freedom of Information Act requests made to the universities.

Mr. Luck estimated the West Virginia athletic department makes a net profit of less than $2 million from a single home game at Mountaineer Field, so the neutral-site opener offers a "pretty attractive financial situation" for the program.

"We're making a little bit of a premium," Mr. Luck said Friday. "At the end of the day, financially speaking, for our bottom line -- that doesn't necessarily mean for the bottom line of the city that may miss out on home-game revenues at restaurants and hotels and whatever -- but for our bottom line it's pretty attractive."

Neutral-site season kickoffs have become a growing trend in college football, with Alabama riding the crest of the wave. The Crimson Tide has opened the season at home just twice in the past seven seasons -- participating instead in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game four times and once in the Cowboys Classic in Arlington, Texas.

Mr. Luck, in his sixth year as West Virginia athletic director, expects the trend to get stronger. These games offer top-tier teams the opportunity to schedule a single game with an opponent instead of home-and-home series that quickly lock up their schedules.

"One game is easier than two," he said. "And very often you can do those a little bit sooner. There's only, say, a three-year lag time with the Alabama game whereas when I was trying to book Penn State or Virginia Tech back on the schedule, it was a 10-year lag time by the time they had availability for a home-and-home."

And, as Mr. Luck knows particularly well as a member of the newly established College Football Playoff committee, more teams will now try to strengthen their schedules instead of beating up on three or four weak non-conference opponents. These neutral-site openers offer such an opportunity.

"I've sat through the [committee] meetings, and I think it's pretty clear that strength of schedule is going to become very important," he said. "Ultimately, it's going to boil down to the committee having a couple of one-loss teams you're trying to decide between. Maybe there's one available spot at No. 4 for three or four one-loss teams, and I think one of the first things the committee will look at is strength of schedule."

There are currently three corporately sponsored kickoff games -- Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, Cowboys Classic and AdvoCare Texas Kickoff, held at Reliant Stadium in Houston -- and all three are at NFL stadiums.

Mr. Luck, a former Houston Oilers quarterback, linked the increase in college games at NFL stadiums, particularly in these season openers, to NFL teams taking over stadium operations from municipalities, which "had no interest to really maximize the value of that stadium."

"[NFL teams] have gotten much more proactive in trying to put together games," he said. "The Redskins might be the most proactive group, with all the stuff they're doing at FedEx."

West Virginia gave up a home game to play James Madison at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., in 2012 and again this past September to face Maryland at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. The Mountaineers are scheduled to play Brigham Young at FedEx Field on Sept. 24, 2016.

Mr. Luck said these "quasi-bowl games" offer an early-season, drivable option for fans to experience an NFL stadium and its football atmosphere.

He said there are "always three or four opportunities" for West Virginia on the table. He said he is "working on a game in Charlotte," and was contacted recently by Tennessee Titans representatives inquiring about his interest in scheduling a game in Nashville against, perhaps, Mississippi or Vanderbilt.

He added that players enjoy the opportunities more than anyone.

"Every one of our players, just like every other player in the country, thinks he's gonna go to the NFL," he said. "They get a kick out of playing where the Redskins play, where the Falcons play, the Panthers, Baltimore. They like that.

"It's a nice thing to tell the kids, hey, you're going to play on the same field as the NFL guys play on Sunday."

Stephen J. Nesbitt: or 412-290-2183.

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