West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck spared a few minutes Friday to discuss the details of the Chick-fil-A Game Kickoff Classic contract, which will land both West Virginia and Alabama a $3.2 million windfall, and the rising trend in neutral-site openers.
Luck is coming at this topic from a few different vantage points, being both an athletic director and a member of the newly established College Football Playoff committee, which has stated its early emphasis on strength of schedule. Thought he had plenty of interesting thoughts on the topic, and not everything fit in the story, so here's our Q&A.
Stephen J. Nesbitt: What was your initial reaction when you were first approached about playing Alabama in 2014?
Oliver Luck: "We were excited about it. One of the interesting developments in college football has been these quasi-bowl games at the beginning of the year. Neutral-site games are much more popular now. I actually think it all goes back to the National Football League. If you think about 20 years, take Pittsburgh for an example, old Three Rivers Stadium was run by the county (I think, right?), or the Astrodome in Houston was run by the county. They really had no interest to really maximize the value of that stadium. As these NFL teams all began to take over the leases, they've gotten much more proactive in trying to put together games. The Redskins might be the most proactive group, with all the stuff they're doing at FedEx. Whether it's Dallas or Atlanta, there's always been a kickoff classic going back for years, but there's many more opportunities. I think fans like it. These games have been pretty well received by fans.
"When the folks from Atlanta approached us, we thought, well, this is a great opportunity. Let's see if we can make it work. I forget the details, we may have had to move a team around to make that date available, but that's not uncommon."
When was it?
"I want to say it was a couple years ago. Maybe two and a half. It's been a while."
Do you expect to see a surge in these high-profile openers considering the College Football Playoff committee's stated emphasis of strength of schedule?
"I'm on that committee. I've sat through the meetings, and I think it's pretty clear that strength of schedule is going to become very important. Ultimately, it's going to boil down to the committee having a couple of one-loss teams you're trying to decide between. Maybe there's one available spot at No. 4 for three or four one-loss teams, and I think one of the first things the committee will look at is strength of schedule. Sometimes a team won't want to do a home-and-home, for whatever reason, but this is a way to upgrade the schedule. If you ask any of the schools that have been approached and have agreed to do these games, one of the factors — maybe not the most important factor — is going to be that, yes, they felt they could upgrade their schedule significantly by playing school X, Y or Z."
I'd imagine the fact that it's just one game is what makes it possible for a West Virginia schedule an Alabama?
"It's easier to schedule one-off than to do a home-and-home. Sometimes it's hard to do a home-and-home, just based on dates. We just, for example, got Penn State and Virginia Tech back on our schedule, two of our traditional rivals, and we weren't able to do home-and-homes with them until the next decade. So, one game is easier than two — that makes some sense — just like two would be easier than four. And very often you can do those a little bit sooner. There's only, say, a three-year lag time with the Alabama game whereas when I was trying to book Penn State or Virginia Tech back on the schedule it was a 10-year lag time by the time they had availability for a home-and-home."
Have you heard gripes from fans about losing a home game, and, if so, what's an AD's justification for that?
"At the end of the day, I think with the 12 games we have, what we try to do is provide a minimum of six home games for our fans. Some years we'll be able to do seven, but not in every year — that makes some sense, given our conference, because there will be years when we only have four conference homes games. It's almost impossible to have three non-conference home games in a year. It just doesn't work that way. Our goal is to always have six home games, and where we can to add a seventh. I haven't really heard much griping at all from our fans. In some cases, particularly given our circumstances being in the Big 12, when we do a one-off game at FedEx like we did a couple years ago, playing JMU [James Madison] down there, and got a game against BYU coming up I think in '17 or '18 — I forget exactly when — at FedEx, the Alabama game, we're working on a one-off game in Charlotte as well. Our fan base likes that because it's relatively drivable. Whether it's D.C. or Charlotte or even Atlanta, you can jump in the car and make that trip. You can't say that about Austin, Texas. And they're early in the year when I think people are a little more willing to jump in the car and drive, before, say, December when you're worried about snow or a storm coming in. We've gotten a pretty good response. Even JMU, the last neutral-site game [opener] we did was at FedEx against JMU, and we had a good crowd. We had 43,000, probably 35,000 of them were Mountaineer fans. We've got a big fan base in D.C. It's not the most attractive opponent, a Division I-AA school. Here's the other thing that nobody writes about very much: Kids love to play in professional stadiums. Every one of our players, just like every other player in the country, thinks he's gonna go to the NFL. They get a kick out of playing where the Redskins play, where the Falcons play, the Panthers, Baltimore. They like that. It's a nice thing to tell the kids, hey, you're going to play on the same field as the NFL guys play on Sunday."
Considering that this was a chance to A) play Alabama instead of William & Mary, B) make $3.2 million, and C) be on college football's center stage in week one ... was it a no-brainer to sign the dotted line?
"I wouldn't say no-brainer, because you have to be intelligent about it. But when these opportunities do come along — and let's not forget that Nick Saban is a native West Virginia guy who coached at WVU, in fact he was a defensive backs coach when I was a student-athlete for a couple years. All those factors kind of fell into place, and as a result it was a pretty easy decision. We've been approached by — and every school has, we're not unique, every school gets approached by all the major markets. I just got a call the other day from Nashville inquiring about our desire to play a game in Nashville against someone like Ole Miss or Vanderbilt. There's always probably three or four opportunities that we have that exist. It's all the NFL cities, right? Pittsburgh hasn't done this, really, but Cincinnati has hosted some one-off games, I think even the Browns hosted Notre Dame a few years ago playing somebody there. D.C., Baltimore is close, Atlanta is not that far, Nashville is getting a little bit farther, Charlotte — these are all venues where there are opportunities. I wouldn't say they're all no-brainers, but some of them are very attractive. You have to look and see how it fits into your schedule and make sure you're not overdoing it. Our non-conference this year is tough. It's Alabama and Towson and then Maryland. Towson is good — I think they came in second last year in the national title game [won share of CAA championship]. So you've got to be a little bit careful. And then you go into the conference schedule, which is brutal to begin with. It's tough, but I think that's what's going to happen across the country with this new playoff system. I'm sitting in the meetings as a member of that committee, and that's what we're talking about. I think a lot of ADs are moving in that direction. It's a trend that is only going to get stronger, in my mind."
As a comparison point, do you have an estimate for the West Virginia athletic department brings in for single home football game?
"From a home football game, we probably generate $2.5 million — it varies a little bit. And then you have the cost of putting on the home game, security staff, etc. Our net is probably less than $2 million, so to have the opportunity to get $2.8 or $3 or whatever it is — and we'll have travel costs, obviously — that's a pretty attractive financial situation for us."
So it's safe to say that not only are you getting a top-level opponent, it's a lucrative game for you, too?
"Yeah. We're making a little bit of a premium. At the end of the day, financially speaking, for our bottom line — that doesn't necessarily mean for the bottom line of the city that may miss our on home-game revenues at restaurants and hotels and whatever — but for our bottom line it's pretty attractive."