Friday, February 10, 2012

Engineers, Leopards.. at the Home of the Yankees?


For the past few years, Lehigh and Lafayette folks have had informal talks about how to commemorate the 150th football meeting between the two schools, in the most-played college football rivalry in history.

One of the ideas, mentioned on this blog back in April, was to possibly move the game to a neutral location, in order to accomodate all the added interest in that particular game.

As the date of November 22nd, 2014, inches closer, some of the big ideas for the 150th continue to come into focus.

This week, Barry Miller of the Express-Times reported the rumor that folks at Lehigh and Lafayette are "messing around with the idea of playing the 150th edition of their football rivalry in 2014 at Yankee Stadium".

In a week where the football discussion generally involves the incoming classes, suddenly, the conversation shifted to the Yankees.


That something special is being planned for the 150th came as no surprise to me.

But the thought of bringing the game to the Bronx - 2 1/2 hours away from the Lehigh Valley - did.

From the Express-Times article, written by Barry Miller:

When asked about the idea on Saturday, Lafayette athletic director Bruce McCutcheon admitted that he had spoken with Lehigh athletic director Joe Sterrett about doing "something special" for the 150th meeting. But McCutcheon wouldn't say whether the idea was under serious consideration or had legs at this point.

 McCutcheon did say that playing the game at Yankee Stadium would certainly draw national attention and that ESPN would probably get involved if the idea ever got off the ground.


The next day, Keith Groller of the Morning Call added a reaction from Lehigh's athletic director:

"It's premature, at the very least, to say that we're going to Yankee Stadium," Joe Sterrett said. "If we did anything in regard to moving the game, we would only do so in a very thoughtful and prudent manner. You'd have to go through and take a look at everything. 
"The goal would be to celebrate the game in a special way and maybe create more attention, somehow, someway and that could be accomplished in a variety of ways."

The floating of this "trial balloon", which is what Keith called it, re-opened a public debate as to the nature of the 150th meeting between the two rivals.

"There is no doubt moving the game to Yankee Stadium would offer a ton of positives," Miller added in his piece, "in that it would allow students and fans to enjoy a day or weekend in New York City.  Playing in New York would add to the appeal with all the nightlife in the city. In my view, picking another venue, such as Lincoln Financial Field or MetLife Stadium, really wouldn't serve the purpose of making the game special for fans."

"Not to be a party-pooper here, but the idea of taking the party that is the Lehigh-Lafayette football game across two state lines and the George Washington Bridge to Yankee Stadium ... doesn't excite me," Groller said. "Maybe it's because I grew up around here and consider this event - and that's what it is, an event, not just a game - to belong to the Lehigh Valley.  My guess is that the hotels, the restaurants, the bars, the pizza shops etc., all depend on the Lehigh-Lafayette game as being a big weekend for them; at least more than usual.  This is one of the rare rivalry games that no matter where it is played, you can come back to your old stomping grounds and rekindle old relationships."

*****

What's more important?  The money, prestige, and ESPN coverage that would likely result in moving the game, once (or perhaps twice), to a big-time location?  Or keeping the national, special event in Easton and Bethlehem, where it has blossomed into a national rivalry at the FCS level?

It's a difficult question to answer, with compelling arguments on both sides.

A lot of the debate seems to center on attendance.

If the 150th is played in Easton, it will unquestionably be a sellout before the regular season even begins, as it has been every other year for the past twenty years at least.

But will the added demand mean that tickets for the game, difficult to get in the best of times, will be impossible to get for Lehigh fans and other interested college football fanatics?

It's a valid question that hasn't gotten a lot of airplay.  No matter where the game is played, it needs to be ensured that everyone who wants to be a part of the game is a part of it, however that's done.  Not everyone will be able to have tickets, but the event will have to accommodate the additional interest.

If you move the game to Yankee Stadium, with a capacity of 52,000 people, ticket availablity almost certainly won't be a question.

But will it be as special for everyone involved if the actual attendance is, say, 25,000 people, in a cavernous, pro stadium, barely half full?

Furthermore, the tailgating experience at Yankee Stadium will be, charitably, different than it would be on the streets of Easton or the large fields around Murray Goodman stadium.  The prime tailgating spots for Yankee games at the new stadium, according to people on nyfans.com, are a small parking lot on 151st street and along the Harlem river.

Another challenge that hasn't been mentioned lately is the date and time that the game would need to be played.

In order to maximize its national appeal, it would almost certainly have to be contested on a day without a Penn State, Rutgers, or even Harvard/Yale going on.  (In 2014, incidentally, Harvard/Yale will be played at Cambridge, too, meaning should the game be played in Yankee Stadium, you could see two major FCS football games being played in both the New York City and Boston areas.)

That seems to dictate that Lehigh/Lafayette would almost certainly need to be rescheduled for a Thursday night - if ESPN will indeed broadcast the game.

Moving the events to a Thursday night might prevent some fans from making the trip, and also require fans to take vacation days in order to attend the game.

There's also another matter - should the game be played at Yankee Stadium, it would be the first time ever that the game would be played outside the state of Pennsylvania.

Isn't Lehigh/Lafayette as much a Pennsylvanian tradition as a Lehigh Valley one?  And is right to let the most special game of  tradition go to - of all places - New York, where it won't be as well appreciated?

Taking the game out of its natural element is something that makes many fans nervous - and rightfully so.

*****

The challenges are there - but, on the other side of the argument, there's plenty to get excited about, too.

There's no way to know exactly whether a Lehigh/Lafayette game will draw 16,000 or 64,000 people anywhere outside the Lehigh Valley, namely because the last time it was tried was back in 1891 in Wilkes-Barre, PA, where 5,000 fans went to see Lehigh defeat Lafayette 16-2 in West Side Park fairgrounds.

It would be the first time

It's probably fair to guess that the attendance at the 150th at Yankee Stadium would probably be roughly equivalent to the attendance at the Rutgers/Iowa State Pinstripe Bowl game this year, also played at Yankee Stadium.

That bowl drew 38,328 fans this past winter, and as you can see, it looked like a pretty good fan experience.

Also, college football has changed.  Neutral site games are not only more common among FCS schools, they've also been extremely popular as well.

In 2010, UMass and New Hampshire played a regular-season game at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. in front of 32,848 people.

This year, Stephen F. Austin played FCS national finalist Sam Houston State in front of 25,083 fans.  (Both of these games actually out-drew the FCS National Championship game, which netted 20,586 officially in a sold-out Pizza Hut park in Frisco, Texas.)

While ESPN would have say in when and where a neutral-site game would be played, being on ESPN remains an important thing to many athletes playing college football.  Every kid donning brown or maroon have the opportunity to play on TV, in front of Service Electric or Lafayette Sports Network cameras, but not everyone has the chance to play on ESPN.  Unquestionable, it's different.

Lehigh/Lafayette is the greatest gem in college football, in my opinion.  However, it's only there if you look for it.

With ESPN's coverage, and interest in the media capital of the world, it at least would expose the game to a new generation of people who otherwise might not ever hear of it.

Like it or not, that's the way things are today.

*****

So what do I think?

If there were a neutral venue in, say, Allentown that could hold 35,000 fans easily, this would be a no-brainer for everyone involved.  The game would remain near the place where it was born, and would be a guaranteed sell out.

But I don't totally buy that a trip to New York City would be the "destination trip" that some are describing.  When I was a student, I made routine trips to New York City, only a couple of hours away.

More likely than a huge influx of tourism, it's likely that the Lehigh and Lafayette students and fans in the PA/NY/NJ/CT area would go to the game, and then drive home.

It also feels like bringing Lehigh/Lafayette to the "big city" takes away something from the soul of the game.  Whether it is its Pennsylvania-ness, it's Lehigh Valley-ness, or something else, I'm not sure.  Bit it definitely takes something.

In a weird sort of way, having it in New York seems to be too far, yet too close, all at the same time.

And I also feel like, in the end, it's Lafayette's call.  Lehigh should be involved, of course, but ultimately it's Lafayette that will be giving up the home game and everything associated with it.  It's their game; their show, just as the 149th and 151st will be Lehigh's show.

It would be best to keep the game in the Lehigh Valley - and there's nothing saying that ESPN wouldn't bring a camera truck to Easton to cover the event anyway.

Having said that, I think Lafayette should look into every possible way to keep this game at home - with a way to accommodate, conservatively, 25,000 fans at Fisher, and, potentially, tens of thousands of other people.

Because if people think this game will draw enough to fill a pro baseball stadium - especially a large, iconic one like Yankee Stadium - then that's where it's going to end up.

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