Nebraska, Northwestern playing Big Ten game in Ireland may start trend
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 capacity crowd of more than 47,000 saw the Wildcats pull off a comeback victory in overtime that helped propel them to a Big Ten championship game.
Saturday, Northwestern is playing its home game against the Cornhuskers in Dublin in Ireland. It’s an event that is placing significant demands on both schools in exchange for almost unfettered national TV exposure on the sport’s opening weekend and a largely expenses-paid opportunity to engage donors and fans while giving the players a brief taste of Irish culture before heading back across an ocean and half of the USA.
So what went into two schools from one of the two richest conferences in college athletics traveling thousands of miles for a league game?
The decision by Northwestern came with some 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 Big Ten’s nine-game league schedule this season. Now, they will host only 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, the 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 agreements, but Anthony said it is receiving “the lion’s share of the economic benefits” for its role as the home team. In addition to having most of its expenses covered, 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 share, last year Kansas State moved its scheduled home game with 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, rather than its on-campus facility. The figures 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 about the event from a university 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 receives a coveted premier national time slot on Fox, something the Wildcats had just once last season. While already having the media appeal of an international game, Saturday’s matchup has the added benefit of being the lone matchup of Power Five schools in Week 0.
With classes at Northwestern not starting until Sept. 21 and no game scheduled on Sept. 3, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said he is allowing his team to take advantage of being in another country not only before, but also after, the game.
“We really wanted to make this be something special,” Fitzgerald said during a news conference this week. “An overwhelming 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 in country on Sunday and give our guys an opportunity whose families are able to make it, to spend some time to soak in as much of the culture and as much of the country as we possibly can 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 the first half of Saturday’s game. Aon Corporation, an insurance and consulting firm founded by since-retired CEO Ryan, is a corporate sponsor of Saturday’s game.
The game is a big undertaking to execute. Nebraska’s 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 instead hosted by the Fighting Illini due to COVID-19.
Who Nebraska would play this year came down to a numbers game. Having the Cornhuskers give up a home game 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 been sold out for every game since 1962. Their five road opponents were Northwestern, Rutgers, Purdue, Michigan and Iowa. The Wildcats were the best fit, given that Ryan Field is the only Big Ten football stadium with a capacity below 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 assemble travel parties well beyond the typical away game. The school will travel with well over 200 people, including 115 football players and a minimum 70 band members and cheerleaders.
One section of the contract places a significant emphasis on tourism and event planning. Nebraska is obligated to participate in things like a welcoming parade, a tailgate hosted by the respective school’s president, and a “US-Ireland CEO Club Event.”
Nebraska was required to produce a list of 80 Nebraska-affiliated CEOs and business leaders who would be invited to the event. According to a university spokesperson, Nebraska put the list together from names of people who had already purchased tickets.
“I think the entire state of Nebraska has a trade mission,” Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts told USA TODAY Sports when discussing how the school decides on its travel party. “The governor’s involved; there’s a lot of moving parts.”
The matchup has been well-received. According to Anthony, more than 13,000 Americans are set to make the trip for the game, making this the largest inbound tourism event for Ireland this year. In total, Aviva Stadium will host an estimated 35,000 people at game time.
“Ireland really embraces this,” said Anthony. “They’ve got so much business growth and economic growth and employment growth with the U.S.. There’s some direct outgrowth from these games and some that just naturally keeps growing.”
For the teams involved, putting on the game is not without major logistical hurdles. Both teams arrived several days before Saturday’s game. Nebraska has the additional challenge of juggling the first week of classes with this travel itinerary. To make up for missing three days of instruction, the team will bring academic advisers on the trip and set aside time for educational periods. Nebraska has to return stateside for a game against North Dakota on Sept. 3.
Nebraska will file its entire 200-plus person travel party onto planes immediately after the game ends. That plane is set to arrive at 5 a.m. CT Sunday,according to Nebraska associate 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 difference. The team recommended Nebraska get back stateside as soon as possible, hence the rushed exit from Ireland.
This odd arrangement could become more commonplace. 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 significant interest from “many” of the Power Five conferences about playing internationally in the future. While Ireland is the only country with a plan “in motion,” other countries have begun reaching out about potentially playing host to future teams.
“There’s so much that has to be in place to make it happen, particularly economically,” said Anthony. “It’s so expensive to put on a game like this. So, yeah, everybody’s interested in the tourism that we can bring, but whether or not they can support it, to make it happen, remains to be seen.”