Neutral site NFL conference championship games don't appear to be gaining support

When the NFL released the now semi-infamous email on Jan. 20 that touted a neutral site AFC championship game with “EXTRAORDINARY DEMAND” and “MORE THAN 50,000 TICKETS SOLD IN ONE DAY,” the educated inference was simple.

This is a league that loves to chase money and create tentpole events. Suddenly it looked like the conference title games were being inched toward the auction block.

Almost instantly, the idea caught seemingly endless sharp elbows from fans on social media, not to mention getting panned by a few prominent voices across the league, including Pittsburgh Steelers team president Art Rooney II, Kansas City Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt and San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. That was followed by some mild pushback from NFL executive vice president for communications Jeff Miller on Tuesday, who said he wasn’t aware of any conversations about converting conference title games into neutral site affairs.

“We haven’t had a conversation, that at least I’m aware of, about neutral site games,” Miller said. “If the ownership wanted to pursue that, I think that they would. There certainly is plenty of time to talk about that in the future. It’s not a new notion, as I understand it having come up many years ago. … But in the wake of that decision [to potentially move the AFC title game this year] we haven’t had a conversation about making future neutral site games, scheduling anything or making any decision around those.”

That’s not exactly a slammed door on the idea.

In front of a raucous home crowd in Philadelphia, which included Santa Claus, the Eagles cruised to the NFC championship. (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
In front of a raucous home crowd in Philadelphia, which included Santa Claus, the Eagles cruised to the NFC championship. (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

That shouldn’t come as a surprise given the NFL will always have potential revenue streams on the back burner. But it’s also a stretch to take one email and manifest it into a fundamental push by the league office to change a cornerstone playoff staple. After all, this isn’t taking the NFL Draft on the road. It’s not something like turning free agency and the schedule release into offseason television events. It’s also not taking the league’s annual scouting combine out of Indianapolis and turning it into a traveling circus (which has never gotten off the ground, despite years of efforts to make it happen).

No, this is taking a fundamental award for NFL teams and their fan bases and essentially freezing them out of a competitive advantage that was gained through months of work. That’s fiddling with the fabric of the NFL playoffs. And for what? Some profit that — as of now — hasn’t been projected?

One high-ranking team executive, who has been in league committee meetings about television contracts, gambling strategy and collective bargaining agreements, panned the media discussion regarding neutral site conference games, calling it a “gross overreaction of speculation” regarding a league email that was meant to “dress up” a difficult decision to potentially move a conference title game out of Buffalo or Kansas City.

“The point [of that email] was highlighting the upside of an unfortunate situation — not signaling to owners about future playoff revenue strategy,” the executive said. “It was making the best of it.”

Asked if the ticket demand for the game could end up being a precursor for a conversation about neutral site games, the executive replied, “Ticket sales isn’t a revenue model.”

“Show me the revenue model that [the media] is speculating about,” the exec said. “There’s this assumption that just because tickets sold well in this one-off situation, it’s some kind of ironclad demonstration. What if they sold well simply because this was an unexpected one-off? … There are 300 variables that have nothing to do with tickets and conference title games also work great and are lucrative the way we do them. And that’s on top of being a legitimate reward for regular-season competition.

“It’s just my opinion, but I don’t see a majority of owners ever wanting to change a revered part of the postseason without the [television] ratings and attendance and revenues dramatically changing to the downside — which they aren’t.”

The neutral site game chatter has yet to be addressed by the league’s biggest power brokers. It’s assumed that franchise owners like the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones and the Los Angeles Rams’ Stan Kroenke — who would both be expected to be in the mix for neutral site games — would be in favor it. To date, neither has commented on the idea. But it can’t be ignored that Jones has often been successful at building a consensus inside the league when it comes to the financial bottom line. His opinion on this kind of thing matters.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell also hasn’t commented, although he will likely be asked for his thoughts at the Super Bowl during his state of the league address next week.