Photo by Jon Hale at Kyforward.com
The listed attendance for last Thursday’s 14-3 win over Western Kentucky in Nashville was 24,599. Let me put that in perspective. Last season’s win over WKU in Commonwealth Stadium saw 66,584 fans in the stands. This game would have been better served staying in Lexington. Hell, this game would have been better served going to Houchens Industries – L.T. Smith Stadium, with a max capacity of about 22,000, in Bowling Green. However, it went to Nashville. The allure of a neutral site game under the big lights with guaranteed television coverage was too much to overlook. UK made a mistake with this neutral site game, but at their core, neutral site contests aren’t evil and UK should look to doing more of them, but the right way.
This worst offense committed by UK in agreeing to this game was the general inaccessibility of it. A game at 9:15 p.m. on a Thursday evening, before Labor Day weekend, in Nashville against a Sunbelt Conference opponent, who has averaged a win a season over the past two years, and with whom we share not an ounce of tradition or rivalry wasn’t smart. The obvious lack of a crowd was embarrassing and as John Clay said in his article regarding the topic of neutral site games, “The Cats were not good on Thursday. They hit the field flat, and you just have to wonder if that had to do with the lack of fans in the stands”. Clay makes a good point, but his provided solution is to simply avoid future contests on unfamiliar turf. That’s not right. There’s another option.
Kentucky has to be smart about how its neutral site games are set up and a few important things need to be kept in mind, as opposed to Thursday’s debacle: time, date and opponent.
The time of the game involves more than just when the ball is kicked off. A game on the Thursday before Labor Day isn’t going to have the same appeal as the same game on the first Saturday afternoon of the college football season. This was the exchange I had with my girlfriend on the subject:
Her: “Why is UK playing on a Thursday?”
Me: “Because then they get to be on national TV.”
Her: “Are they on ESPN?”
Me: “No. ESPNU.”
Her: “Is that really national?”
Me: “Kind of.”
Her: “That’s dumb.”
Our stellar conversational dynamic aside, she’s right. That is dumb. The date is everything here. The most exciting thing about college football is that first Saturday afternoon, when everybody else is playing, too. Fans want to come down for the weekend, start partying on Friday night and keep it going all through the game. The late Thursday night game meant some fans coming from the Bluegrass state, who aren’t Drew Franklin, commuted after work or school and, therefore, had limited party time. After the terrible game, they wouldn’t have had the same zeal for enjoyment as they did before and the experience is ruined. The beauty of a Saturday afternoon game is even if your team loses and your Saturday night sucks, you had a great Friday. Neutral site games should be exciting events, putting two fan bases who hate each other in the same place for many days. This game wasn’t that.
It’s a shame because UK is a school with as passionate fan base as any in the country and there’s no excuse for them not to travel, especially to a fantastic city like Nashville. As balanced as the teams may have been on the field this year, Western Kentucky doesn’t get UK fans very excited. Neutral site games provide a great opportunity to stoke the fires of rivalry, while also scheduling a high profile opponent. UK has been notoriously bad about scheduling real football programs for its non-conference slate, but a top team from an automatic qualifier conference would be the perfect fit for UK at a neutral site. I’d rather see UK play a Cincinnati or West Virginia, or a traditional basketball rival like North Carolina or Kansas than Western Kentucky or Miami of Ohio.
In addition, wrapping up a high profile match up early in the season can generate big bucks for both schools. The Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta that featured Boise State and Georgia paid each school between $2 and $2.2 million. That’s more than most bowl games pay. Obviously, Kentucky isn’t as high profile as either of those schools, but UK is a recognizable brand with a traditionally passionate fan base. An early season match up against a high profile opponent somewhere like Nashville, Atlanta, Cincinnati or even Indianapolis, could pay dividends for the program. Plus, exposure in games against more high profile teams, especially schools we recruit against, would certainly boost the Cats’ profile in the eyes of high school players.
I agree with John Clay regarding Thursday’s game. It was a disaster, on the field and in the stands. However, we shouldn’t turn our heads to all future neutral site endeavors. It can be done right, and if it is, it would only help the program, well, you know… #RISE.