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Money Would Drive More Potential Neutral-Site AFC and NFC Championship Games

The NFL already controls the conference title games, so here are several ways the league could create new revenue sources by making a drastic change to the playoff format.

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Next week’s AFC championship game will be played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta if the Bills defeat the Bengals in a divisional round game Sunday. The Bills would meet the Chiefs in Atlanta after the league approved a resolution to amend the AFC playoff picture in the wake of the extraordinary circumstances involving Damar Hamlin, which led to the Bengals-Bills postponement Jan. 2.

I have two points to make on neutral-site conference title games potentially becoming a permanent part of our pro football reality.

One, I think the idea of doing it, and taking the games out of the home cities, is a complete abomination. And, two, I think it’s inevitable that the owners will start talking seriously about it, and probably sooner than later.

The NFL is considering moving to neutral-site conference championship games.

Neutral-site conference championships could help prepare cities to host a Super Bowl, or help the league evaluate cities that might bid on one.

It wouldn’t be hard for anyone to guess why I think that—a wise man once advised me, in covering the NFL, to always follow the money, and the revenue trail is what led me to my destination on this one. After talking to a few people about it this weekend, it’s pretty easy to see where the league could capitalize financially on rotating the games through different cities and creating a setup not unlike the College Football Playoff’s arrangement, where bowl games serve as the sites of the two semifinals.

How would they make money on them? In a few different ways:

• First, it’d make it easier to slap naming rights on the game—something, presumably, you’d never do with the Super Bowl. It would mirror what’s done in college football with bowl games. It’d also be easier to get top dollar for such naming rights if you’re selling the site of the game as part of it, too.

• Second, you’d have cities bidding for the neutral-site games, and it’d allow for places such as Detroit, Minneapolis or Indianapolis—cities that might get a Super Bowl once but possibly never again—a chance to continue to capitalize on having a Super Bowl–quality stadium. It could also help prepare cities to host a Super Bowl, or help the league evaluate cities that might bid on one.

• Third, the NFL could control and sell the suites and tickets. As it is now, teams generally sell those to their season-ticket holders and suite holders. “The inventory you could have for sponsors and networks and visitors is taken to a large degree by the sponsors and the ticket holders of the home team,” says one source connected to the league office. At a neutral site, everyone would be free of such obligations, so the NFL could sell all of that in advance, or use them with sponsors and corporate partners more efficiently.

So how would this work? My guess is they’d make it, outside of New York and Los Angeles, so the AFC title game would be held in an NFC venue and the NFC title game would be held in an AFC venue, and then they’d have bidding on each game a couple of years ahead of time.

I can also say that owners have, indeed, talked about this over the years, so it’s not a new idea. It’s just one that hasn’t yet gotten to the point where it’s ready to be voted on.

But the pieces are in place to make this happen. The NFL already controls the conference title games (teams run the wild-card and divisional rounds). So where Park Avenue has generally allowed for the teams to be true to their suite holders and season-ticket holders, it could pretty easily pull back on that if the owners see fit. Additionally, going through the Bills-Chiefs scenario the past few weeks gave them a sort of dry run to find potential issues.

Are there some? Sure. There are plenty.

But there’s also money to be made. And when that’s the case—with the owners involved—we all know how that movie usually ends.