Neutral-site games have pros, cons for teams, fans

By Tom Hurley | @TomHurleyKernel

[email protected]

The lure of Rupp Arena, the prestige of a UK game in downtown Lexington, the excitement of opening the season in front of a roaring home crowd still bouncing with joy at an eighth national title: that may once have been enough razzmatazz for the regular-season debut for UK’s men’s basketball team, but not in 2012.

On Friday, the Cats will get their quest for a ninth national championship under way in the shiny new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Rather than facing the hometown team, as you might expect with a game not being played in Lexington, UK will instead play Maryland in the first of the Cats’ two neutral-site games this season.

The other will come four days later in a venue more used to hosting the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons than a UK-Duke college basketball game — the Georgia Dome.

While the enticement of playing in a brand-new building in a big market for the opener, and an NFL stadium in the follow-up, brings national television coverage, it remains to be seen how many fans of the schools playing will be present on game day.

That is among the many pros and cons that materialize when contemplating the growing trend of neutral-site games.

Yes, alumni in the area will enjoy having their alma mater play nearby, but what about the students on campus who can ill afford to skip class or the monetary expense of a road trip so far afield?

Perhaps fans should just be thankful this year’s regular-season neutral site games take place in the U.S., and not on an Air Force base in Germany, where Michigan State and Connecticut play Friday.

Playing games at neutral sites ensures heightened media interest, and in turn, greater media coverage of the school on the airwaves and in print.

Having your program play on national television is vital to attract the next generation of players during the recruiting process.

Wouldn’t you be more interested in playing for a school that gets to play in these big marquee events on national television each season? Not to mention playing for a coach who gets greeted by Jay-Z, as is likely to be the case for UK head coach John Calipari prior to the Cats’ game in Brooklyn.

If UK recruit Julius Randle was impressed by the presence of hip-hop star Drake at Big Blue Madness, imagine what will be going through his and fellow recruit Andrew Wiggins’ minds when they see that exchange on television.

Finances are also a plus when playing a neutral-site game, particularly in a football stadium.

Which school wouldn’t want to enjoy the higher gate receipts from crowds in excess of 70,000?

On the other hand, the idea of neutral-site games is not a pleasant one for every college official.

Calipari and athletic director Mitch Barnhart wanted a new agreement for games against rival Indiana to be played at neutral sites.

IU officials didn’t feel the same way, and instead favored continuing the home-and-home format.

The opposing desires resulted in the series being scrapped all together.

Aside from the high media interest and larger profits from ticket sales, the other pro in the eyes of coaches and officials is having their players experience the “big occasion.”

Playing at the Georgia Dome with its grand stature and unfamiliar basketball setup will give players a taste of what things will be like if they make it back to the stadium in April for the Final Four.

That experience could be vital for a teenager as he stands in the Atlanta Falcons’ locker room this spring preparing to take the court for a shot at a national title.

UK’s involvement in neutral-site games is set to continue into the future, be it to the delight or dismay of fans, students, alumni, bankers, recruits and television networks alike.

Gimmicks of playing games on aircraft carriers or European air bases are one thing, but setting up your young squad with valuable big-venue experience is another.

It’s a sentiment certainly not lost on Calipari.

He’s already arranged at least one neutral-site game for 2013-14, against Baylor at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Why does he want the likes of the Harrison twins and James Young to get experience playing in that particular building, I hear you cry?

Is it for the ticket money, the national exposure, to please alumni and donors based in Texas?

Or, maybe it’s because that’s where next season’s Final Four will take place.