The last time Northwestern played a home football game against Nebraska that fans could attend was on an October day, it was homecoming, and a capacity crowd of more than 47,000 saw the Wildcats pull off a comeback victory in overtime that helped lead them to a Big Ten championship game.
On Saturday, Northwestern is playing its home game against the Cornhuskers in Dublin, Ireland. It’s an event that’s placing significant demands on both schools in exchange for nearly unfettered national television exposure on the sport’s opening weekend and a largely expense-paid opportunity to engage donors and fans while giving players a taste brief glimpse of Irish culture before heading back again. an ocean and half the US.
So what went into two schools from one of the two richest conferences in college athletics traveling thousands of miles for a league game?
Northwestern’s decision came with some costs. The Wildcats, who have appeared in two of the last four Big Ten championship games, agreed to put themselves at a significant competitive disadvantage.. They were already scheduled to play four home conference games in the Big Ten League’s nine-game schedule this season. Now, they will host just three conference opponents: No. 18 Wisconsin, No. 2 Ohio State and Illinois.
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Northwestern will be well compensated for sacrificing that home game, according to John Anthony, founder and CEO of Anthony Travel and principal of Irish American Events Limited, which arranged the contracts for the game. As a private school, Northwestern is exempt from having to disclose such deals, but Anthony said it is getting “the lion’s share of the economic benefits” for its role as the home team. In addition to covering most of the expenses, Nebraska will receive $250,000 from the organizers, according to a contract USA TODAY Sports obtained from the university. through an open records request.
As for Northwestern’s part, last year Kansas State moved its scheduled home game with Stanford to Arlington, Texas, and was paid $2.8 million. Houston took $2.4 million to play Texas Tech in NRG Stadium, home of the NFL’s Houston Texans, instead of its own campus facility. The numbers for Kansas State and Houston were from contracts for those games.
Northwestern campus spokesman Jon Yates told USA TODAY Sports that the university was declining to comment on the incident from the university’s perspective, and athletics department spokesman Paul Kennedy did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment about the game.
In addition to the financial gain, Northwestern gets coveted national airtime on Fox, something the Wildcats only had once last season. While it already has the media appeal of an international game, Saturday’s matchup has the added benefit of being the only Power Five school matchup in Week 0.
With classes at Northwestern not starting until Sept. 21 and no game scheduled for Sept. 3, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said he is allowing his team to take advantage of being in a different location. not only before but also after the game.
“We really wanted to make this something special,” Fitzgerald said during a press conference this week. “A vast majority of our team had never left the country, let alone been to Ireland. And so with the Big Ten giving us a bye the week after, we’re going to stay put on Sunday and give the boys ours an opportunity that families are able to take, spend some time soaking in as much of the culture and as much of the country as possible and then fly back here on Monday.”
Northwestern alum and major university and athletics benefactor Pat Ryan, namesake of the school’s football stadium and field house, is also being honored during halftime of Saturday’s game. Aon Corporation, an insurance and consulting firm founded by retired CEO Ryan, is a corporate sponsor of Saturday’s game.
The game is a huge undertaking to execute. The Nebraska contract was signed by the school and Irish American Events Limited in May 2021, just 15 months ago. The Cornhuskers were scheduled to play Illinois in Ireland last season, but the game was hosted by the Fighting Illini due to COVID-19.
Who would play Nebraska this year was based on a numbers game. Giving up a home game to the Cornhuskers wasn’t going to happen. Their Memorial Stadium ranks fourth in the conference and 13th in college football with a capacity exceeding 90,000 and has sold out for every game since 1962. Their five road opponents were Northwestern, Rutgers, Purdue, Michigan and Iowa. The Wildcats were the perfect fit, given that Ryan Field is the Big Ten’s only football stadium with a capacity under 50,000. Northwestern failed to sell out a single game during the 2021 season.
Nebraska, according to the contract, was to launch multiple marketing campaigns for game tickets, travel packages, hospitality and corporate events, as well as put together travel parties beyond the typical away game. The school will travel with over 200 people, including 115 football players and at least 70 band members and fans.
Part of the contract places a significant emphasis on tourism and event planning. Nebraska is bound to participate in things like a welcome parade, a tailgate hosted by the respective school’s president, and a “US-Ireland CEO Club Event.”
Nebraska was asked to produce a list of 80 Nebraska-related CEOs and business leaders who would be invited to the event. According to a university spokesman, Nebraska compiled the list from the names of people who had already purchased tickets.
“I think the whole state of Nebraska has a business mission,” Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts said. said USA TODAY Sports when discussing how the school decides on its travel party. “The governor is involved; there are a lot of moving parts.”
The match was well received. According to Anthony, more than 13,000 Americans are set to make the trip for the game, making it the biggest inbound tourism event for Ireland this year. In total, the Aviva Stadium will host around 35,000 people at game time.
“Ireland really embraces that,” Anthony said. “They’ve had so much business growth and economic growth and employment growth with the U.S. There are some direct results from these games and some that naturally continue to grow.”
For the teams involved, staging the game is not without major logistical hurdles. Both teams arrived a few days before Saturday’s game. Nebraska has the added challenge of juggling the first week of classes with this travel itinerary. To make up for the three missed days of class, the team will bring academic advisors on the trip and time out educational periods. Nebraska is scheduled to return to state for a game against North Dakota on Sept. 3.
Nebraska will bring its entire traveling party of over 200 people on a plane right after the game. That plane will arrive at 5 a.m. Sunday, according to Nebraska athletic director Keith Mann.
To combat the side effects of international travel, Nebraska has worked with an in-house sports science team to work on maximizing sleep patterns and mitigating the negative effects of jet lag and time zone change. The team recommended that Nebraska return to state as soon as possible, so it was rushed out of Ireland.
This strange arrangement may become more common. Notre Dame and Navy, originally set to play in Ireland in 2020, are scheduled to play in Dublin in 2023. Anthony said he has seen strong interest from “a lot” of the Power Five conferences to play internationally in the future. While Ireland is the only country with a plan “in motion”, other countries are starting to look to potentially play host to future teams.
“There are a lot of things that have to be in place to make it happen, especially economically,” Anthony said. “It’s so expensive to make a game like this. So, yes, everyone is interested in the tourism we can bring, but whether or not they can support it, to make it happen, remains to be seen.”