Annual tournament matches at the neutral site? Please don’t, NFL

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

It’s not personal. It’s going to be a great Josh Allen-Patrick Mahomes match for the AFC Championship.

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

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

It also provides the NFL, conveniently or not, with an opportunity to test a concept that will no doubt be profitable for the league at the expense of many loyal fans and local markets.

On Friday, the league sent out a celebratory statement about how season ticket holders for both teams will buy 50,000 tickets a day for the Atlanta game, if it happens. The press release announced that Chiefs and Bills were working with “season ticket members to provide priority access, subject to availability.”

Obviously, the league is full of game that might not even happen, and if all you care about is revenue (and that’s the NFL we’re talking about) it makes sense.

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

Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta will serve as the neutral host for the Bills-Chiefs AFC Championship game, if both teams win this weekend. (Adam Hagee / Getty Images)

See, NFL playoff games are generally incredible experiences. It is almost impossible to spoil them. You could play it on a high school field in Alaska and it would be just fine.

However, they must never exit the higher seeded team’s home court.

The reasons are countless before even considering how neutral sites work only for the corporate and most affluent set of fans.

• The conference championship game at the neutral site reduces the importance of the regular season, which has already been diminished by the long season. The home field value in the title game, along with a first-round bye, is a bonus for the top seed. The NFL shouldn’t take that away.

• The atmosphere at the neutral site Super Bowl always 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 unattached fans and corporate ticket holders. The pre-match back-gate hustle cannot be duplicated.

• Taking the game out of local markets represents a huge loss to those communities, including local businesses and stadium workers. In choosing Atlanta, the NFL indicated that the decision on where to hold the 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 often paid for from public funds. It’s a lopsided deal, but it’s among the few financial irregularities that Game Days generates massive revenue. To take such a big thing away from, say, Western New York, where a new Bills stadium would cost about $850 million in taxpayer money, not to mention some locals traveling to spend discretionary money in another city, is brutal baiting.

Basically, this is about the fans.

The NFL is really the only major professional league to stage its championship on a neutral site. In other sports, a fan can know by purchasing season tickets that they will have a chance to see the final game, or at least portions of the final series, being played in front of them.

This is not the case with the NFL, where only wealthy fans can travel to the Super Bowl. Taking the semi-finals away from home fans and making two more Super Bowls only adds to the problem.

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

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

However, it is these casual fans who are most likely to walk away from the rare championship game. When professional sports teams start talking about “priority access,” they’re talking about customers who buy the most expensive seats and/or are willing to pay more to be considered “priority.”

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

This is the NFL taking care of the highest-paying customers (generally club-level ticket holders) at two franchises while letting the majority of season-ticket holders, who pay the least, out of the action. That’s a lot of non-priority customers.

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

But not only will you need to spend to get Priority Access, you’ll then need to spend money to travel to the neutral site game, including potentially losing work the next day. And if you don’t have season tickets but want to splurge on the big game, well, add the travel costs, too.

Plenty of people would gladly do that – no one is denying the request.

It wouldn’t be a middle or working class fan who faithfully attends games week after week, year after year, in the hope that their team will host the occasional championship game.

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