By Joe Trinacria
HOUSTON – Death Valley was truly dead the night of Aug. 30.
The lights were dim, the tailgaters absent, and if you faintly heard the opening bars of “Hold That Tiger” echoing off in the distance, your mind may have been playing tricks on you.
Although the LSU Tigers began their 2014 football season as the designated home team, head coach Les Miles and company were over 250 miles away from Tiger Stadium in the Space City. Per its agreement with Wisconsin, No. 13 LSU opened this year against the No. 14 ranked Badgers at Houston’s NRG Stadium, a decision that was met with mixed feelings by the Tiger faithful.
With the forthcoming College Football Playoff, Division I athletic departments across the country are putting more of an emphasis on a tough non-conference schedule than ever before. In college football today, that means agreeing to mutually beneficial neutral site games.
“It’s very difficult to get a quality non-conference opponent to come play us in Tiger Stadium,” LSU athletic director Joe Alleva said. “When you go to a neutral site like Lambeau Field (site of LSU’s 2016 match up with Wisconsin) or to Houston, you get more fans interested in attending the game.”
Economically it makes more sense for powerhouse schools to team up and schedule neutral site games than it would be to meet on each respective campus.
By agreeing to become a part of the Texas Kickoff Classic, both LSU and Wisconsin split a cash payout from the revenue generated by television rights, sponsorships, and ticket sales, among others.
“Financially speaking, we made equal to playing a home game by going to Houston,” Alleva said. “When we go to Wisconsin, we’ll get another payday out of that. If we scheduled a home-and-home, we get nothing from going up there. It’s financially advantageous to play at neutral sites.”
For the away team, it is also advantageous in terms of limiting the ever-important home-field advantage.
While NRG Stadium was primarily a sea of purple and gold, Wisconsin was actually able to acquire more tickets for its fans than it normally would have if the game were held in Baton Rouge.
Generally speaking, roughly 5,000 tickets are dispersed to opposing schools for a standard away game. In Houston, Alleva estimates that the Badgers received anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000 tickets.
For the home team, a neutral site game is great a way to engage a strong alumni contingent located outside of the main campus area, in addition to giving the program a leg up on potential future recruiting within that area.
“We really enjoyed the hospitality of Houston. The fact that 50,000 friends of the Tigers were on hand; it was obviously a home game,” LSU coach Les Miles said in his weekly conference. “But, it had all of the markings, the excitement in the stadium, the loudest bells, if you will, that were put off by our fans of a big time bowl game. And our guys, they really enjoyed it.”
The game itself was the culmination of a successful opening night in Houston for the Tigers, with LSU overcoming a 17-point deficit in the third quarter to defeat Wisconsin 28-24.
The Tigers then returned home to Baton Rouge for a clash with FCS offensive juggernaut Sam Houston State, posting a 56-0 win.