The last time Northwestern played a home football game against Nebraska that fans could attend, it was an October day, it was homecoming, and a crowd of over 47,000 saw the Wildcats come back to win in overtime that helped propel them to a Big Ten championship game.
On Saturday, Northwestern plays at home against the Cornhuskers in Dublin, Ireland. It’s an event that places significant demands on both schools in exchange for nearly unlimited national television exposure on the sport’s opening weekend and a largely expense-paid opportunity to attract donors and fans while giving players a brief taste of Irish culture before they return. an ocean and half the US.
So what happened to two schools from one of the two richest conferences in college athletics traveling thousands of miles for a championship game?
Northwestern’s decision came at a cost. 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 conference games at home in the nine-game Big Ten championship 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 this home game, according to John Anthony, founder and CEO of Anthony Travel and director of Irish American Events Limited, which arranged the contracts for this game. As a private school, Northwestern is exempt from having to disclose such deals, but Anthony said it receives “the lion’s share of the financial benefits” for its role as the home team. In addition to covering most of its expenses, Nebraska will receive $250,000 from organizers, according to a contract USA TODAY Sports obtained from the university through an open records request.
As for Northwestern’s share, last year Kansas State moved its scheduled home game against Stanford to Arlington, Texas, and was paid $2.8 million. Houston received $2.4 million to play Texas Tech at NRG Stadium, home of the NFL’s Houston Texans, instead of its on-campus facility. The figures for Kansas State and Houston were from the contracts for those games.
Northwestern campus spokesman Jon Yates told USA TODAY Sports that the university declined to comment on the incident from the university’s perspective, and athletic department spokesman Paul Kennedy did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment about the game.
In addition to the financial gain, Northwestern gets a coveted national schedule on Fox, something the Wildcats had just once last season. While it already has the media appeal of an international game, Saturday’s game has the added benefit of being the only matchup of Power Five schools in Week 0.
With classes at Northwestern not starting until Sept. 21 and no games scheduled for Sept. 3, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said it allows his team to take advantage of being in another country not only before, but and after the match.
“We really wanted to make this something special,” Fitzgerald said during a press conference this week. “The 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 next week, we’re going to stay in the country on Sunday and give our kids a opportunity Families can make it, take some time to enjoy the culture and the country as much 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 field and field, is also honored during halftime of Saturday’s game. Aon Corporation, an insurance and consulting firm founded by then-retired CEO Ryan, is a corporate sponsor of Saturday’s race.
The game is a big undertaking to run. 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 Nebraska would play this year came down to a numbers game. Dropping a home game to the Cornhuskers was not going to happen. Their Memorial Stadium ranks fourth in the conference and 13th in college football with a capacity of over 90,000 and has sold out for every game since 1962. Their five road opponents have been Northwestern, Rutgers, Purdue, Michigan and Iowa. The Wildcats were a better fit given that Ryan Field is the only Big Ten 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 required to launch multiple marketing campaigns for game tickets, travel packages, corporate hospitality and events, as well as put together travel parties well beyond the typical away game. The school will travel with more than 200 people, including 115 football players and at least 70 band members and cheerleaders.
A section of the convention places significant emphasis on tourism and event planning. Nebraska is required 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 to compile a list of 80 CEOs and business leaders connected to Nebraska to be invited to the event. According to a university spokesperson, Nebraska compiled the list of names of people who had already purchased tickets.
“I think the entire state of Nebraska has a shopping mission,” Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts told 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 match time.
“Ireland are really embracing this,” Anthony said. “They have so much business growth and economic growth and employment growth with the U.S. There’s some immediate growth from these games and some that naturally continues to grow.”
For the teams involved, starting the game is not without major logistical hurdles. Both teams arrived several days before Saturday’s game. Nebraska has the added challenge of juggling the first week of classes with that travel schedule. To make up for the three days of missing instruction, the team will bring academic advisors on the trip and set aside time for instructional sessions. Nebraska must return to state for a game against North Dakota on Sept. 3.
Nebraska will deposit its entire 200-plus person travel party on planes immediately after the game ends. That plane is scheduled to arrive at 5 a.m. Sunday, according to Nebraska associate athletic director Keith Mann.
To combat the side effects of international travel, Nebraska has partnered with an in-house sports science team to work on maximizing sleep patterns and mitigating the negative effects of jet lag and time zone difference. The team recommended that Nebraska return to the state as soon as possible, hence the hasty exit from Ireland.
This strange arrangement could become more common. Notre Dame and Navy, originally scheduled to play in Ireland in 2020, are scheduled to play in Dublin in 2023. Anthony said he has seen significant interest from “several” Power Five conferences about international play in the future . While Ireland is the only country with a plan “in motion”, other countries have begun to approach the possibility of hosting future teams.
“There’s so much that needs to be in place for that to happen, especially financially,” Anthony said. “It’s so expensive to play a game like that. So, yeah, everybody’s interested in the tourism we can bring, but whether or not they can support it, to make it happen, remains to be seen.”
This article originally appeared in USA TODAY: Nebraska, Northwestern play Big Ten game in Ireland could start trend