Thanks to the Cincinnati Bengals’ win over the Buffalo Bills Sunday, we now know that the NFL playoffs will not feature a neutral-site AFC Championship Game this weekend.
But the possibility has prompted a great deal of discussion about whether the NFL would consider adopting neutral sites for its conference championship games in the future, as it does with the league championship Super Bowl.
Speculation about such a move shifted to high gear Friday when the league sent out a press release headlined “Potential Neutral Site AFC Championship Game in Atlanta Seeing Extraordinary Demand: More than 50,000 Tickets Sold in One Day.”
Although that is a newsworthy statement of fact, it is not difficult to infer a tone of enthusiasm for the idea coming from the league office. Certainly from a business sense, creating two additional tentpoles in the league’s big-event strategy—which already includes the Combine, Draft, Kickoff and Pro Bowl in addition to the Super Bowl—would generate millions of dollars in revenue for the NFL.
But as many pundits and fans proclaimed in articles and on social media over the weekend, the switch would come at the expense of teams, their local fans and their home markets, which would no longer reap the benefits of hosting a major event.
While neutral-site AFC and NFC championship games are strictly hypothetical for now, they are certainly not out of the realm of possibility in the near future. If the NFL goes in that direction, we know it will be an unpopular decision with legions of fans. That will put sponsors in an interesting position.
Corporate and brand partners like to tout that they are “for the fans,” and they should be if they want their sponsorships to impact attitudes and behavior of those fans, especially for sponsors in the B2C space. It is easy to envision some team sponsors launching promotional campaigns against the idea of moving championships games as a way to bond with their local customer bases.
League sponsors clearly would be in a more precarious position. Displeased fans would likely call on top partners such as PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Mars, Visa, DraftKings and others to use their influence with the league or at least lend their considerable platforms to support and amplify fans’ opposition.
Would an NFL partner be willing to plant a flag on behalf of fans? Would such a move pay off in increased consumer loyalty and other behavior? What would the NFL’s response be?
If the NFL was impressed enough by the response to the potential AFC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, we may soon have some answers to those intriguing questions.