NFL ponders taking conference championship games to neutral sites

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For years, Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt pushed for the NFL to move conference championship games to a neutral site. Every time Hunt brought the proposal to ownership, ownership voted it down.

Now, as Hunt’s Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills stand one win each away from the first ever neutral-site conference title game, Hunt’s vision may be moving toward becoming a reality.

The premature public proclamation that Bills and Chiefs fans bought 50,000 tickets in 24 hours becomes circumstantial evidence that the league is thinking about making all conference championship games neutral-site contests. Privately, we’ve tracked down some direct evidence of the NFL’s intentions.

Within the league office, the interest in neutral-site title games has become very real. The NFL desires the atmosphere of major college bowl games, where a 50/50 mix of fans are decked out in team colors. It’s one thing about college football that pro football does not fully replicate.

The Super Bowl, which has been played at a neutral site from its inception (the last two Super Bowls were coincidentally played in the home stadium of one of the two teams), lacks the same vibe as a major college bowl game. The crowd itself at a Super Bowl is often too neutral. Many who attend a Super Bowl do so for the experience, and because they can afford it. Also, for the fans of the teams that qualify, two weeks before kickoff is too late to score tickets — other than the limited amount made available to each franchise.

For a conference championship game at a neutral site, the tickets presumably would be handled in the same way they’ve been distributed for this year’s possible test run: half to the season-ticket holders of one team, half to the season-ticket holders of the other.

It’s one thing for some within the league’s power structure to want neutral-site conference championship games. It’s another for at least 24 owners to vote for it. But even if the Bills and Chiefs don’t make it to the next round this year, the league’s decision to all the ticket sales becomes the foundation for the NFL to sell the possibility to owners and fans (many of whom aren’t interested in a neutral-site conference championship game) as innovative and ground-breaking and the next step in growing the game, by taking two more of its most significant events to different cities and stadiums, every year.

It doesn’t hurt that cities will jockey (and pay) for the privilege of hosting the conference championship games.

Yes, it robs the higher seed of the ability to host the game, one of the very real advantages of earning a higher spot on the playoff tree. It also impacts some of the profit generated by the home team. But not as much as a regular home game.

Although, as we understand it, the team that hosts a conference championship currently gets its expenses reimbursed (not to exceed 15 percent of the gross ticket revenue), the rest of the money goes to the league for distribution to all teams. The only real profit for hosting such games comes from parking, concessions, and some ancillary hospitality.

Fans won’t like it, in theory. If it happens this year, fans will get to witness it — and the league will get to hype it up, relentlessly. Even if that’s not enough to sway public opinion, public opinion hasn’t stopped the league from making other innovations.

Fans didn’t like the export of regular-season home games to Europe. And it’s been happening, and growing, for 15 years.

What will we do, not watch the conference championship games? The league knows we can’t get enough of the NFL, and our appetite will not decline by even the slightest if/when conference championships are played at a neutral site.

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