- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Big Ten athletic directors have a lot of decisions to make for the future, including the possibility of playing nine or even 10 conference home games per season starting in 2014. If the league does go that route, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith has an idea.
"I would like to see more neutral sites in those scenarios," Smith told ESPN.com. "We've got a great stadium in Chicago, one in Detroit, one in Indianapolis, and now we have the East Coast. So I can see more neutral sites for conference games."
The idea wouldn't be totally new for the Big Ten. In 2010, there were two such neutral-site league games, as Indiana played Penn State at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., and Northwestern and Illinois met in Wrigley Field. The game between the Wildcats and Illini drew a lot of attention, though not always for the best reasons as the field dimensions didn't exactly turn out as expected.
The Big Ten also discussed the possibility of using NFL stadiums and even Major League Baseball parks for big events to kick off the season when the Pac-12 scheduling alliance was announced. With that alliance dead, perhaps the conference could generate some early season buzz instead with league games at such sites.
"Neutral sites are great; those are just great opportunities," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips told ESPN.com. "They have to be in the right places and have the right matchups, but the fans have responded in a positive way to some of those neutral-site games. We need to listen to them and we need to pay attention to those things. We may not do everything that the fans want, but that’s what's made our game so great and more popular than it’s ever been."
The addition of Maryland and Rutgers to the league in 2014 brings more possibilities, as the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights both have pro stadiums nearby. Rutgers played Army at MetLife Stadium in 2010, and in Yankee Stadium in 2011. The school reportedly received a $2.7 million payday for the 2010 game, nearly twice what it made in a typical home game.
The finances are tough to ignore. Rutgers' High Point Solutions Stadium seats about 53,000, and Maryland's Byrd Stadium has a capacity of about 54,000. How much more money could those two cash-strapped athletic programs make if, say, Rutgers played Michigan in MetLife (capacity: 82,500) or the Terps moved a home game against Ohio State to FedEx Field (91,700)? Indiana's "home game" against Penn State at the Redskins' stadium let the Hoosiers pocket an extra $2 million.
But teams also have to weigh that cash infusion against the loss of some home-field advantage and potentially angering their most loyal customers. And let's be honest: teams like Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State never have to worry about giving up a home game, so neutral site conference games benefit them.
"We are definitely open to that conversation, because it does a couple of things," Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti told ESPN.com. "From a business perspective, it gives us an opportunity to generate a much more significant amount of revenue on a one-game basis. For our opponent, especially the ones with big alumni bases in this region, it gives them the opportunity to have access to more seats.
"But it's not something we're going to get in the habit of doing. I think when the schedule allows the opportunity to do it, maybe once every three-to-five years, we'd consider doing that. But I think the most important thing is to deliver the best games and the best atmospheres on our campus."
A lot of ideas will be tossed around by league athletic directors in the next several months. We'll see if neutral-site conference games gains much traction.