Within a 24-hour span earlier this week, over 50,000 tickets were sold for a potential neutral-site AFC Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Of course, that would only come to fruition if the teams playing are Buffalo and Kansas City, needing wins over Jacksonville and Cincinnati, respectively, to advance to next week’s conference title game. This would come as a peace offering to the Bills, who finished with a lower winning percentage than the Chiefs but also played one fewer game, never resuming their Week 17 matchup at Cincinnati due to Damar Hamlin’s medical emergency.
This contingency plan obviously came under unprecedented circumstances, though, as evidenced by what’s been described as “extraordinary demand,” the novelty of a neutral-site conference championship has fans intrigued. While next week’s game, if it’s held in Atlanta, could prove to be an outlier, Browns beat reporter Daryl Ruiter of 92.3 The Fan theorized that the NFL could be launching this as a trial balloon of sorts, an experiment to determine the feasibility of making this an annual occurrence.
It's hard not to be cynical about the NFL and its ulterior motives, somehow spinning an unconscionable tragedy (a player almost dying on the field) into a clever marketing ploy. We all know capitalism never sleeps and if the NFL can make a neutral-site semifinal game in Atlanta profitable, touting Bills/Chiefs as a mini-Super Bowl between two of the league’s elite quarterbacks (Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes), why wouldn’t they? Just think of the untapped potential, having cities and stadiums jockey for hosting bids with networks waging a similar battle for broadcast rights. Wherever he is, commissioner Roger Goodell must be kicking himself right now, furious he didn’t think of this sooner.
It seems almost inevitable, a foregone conclusion for a league that, for all its corruption and moral compromises, continues to make money hand over fist, expertly mining new revenue sources for enormous profit. Of course, not everyone will be on board with neutral-site conference championships. While the Super Bowl may reign supreme as an unmatched entertainment spectacle and a touchstone of American pop culture, it’s far from the best fan atmosphere, a neutered, watered-down version of the passion and excitement of a home crowd living and dying by every play. Perennial contenders like the Chiefs would also cry foul, not only losing the homefield advantage they worked so hard for during the regular season, but also forfeiting millions in ticket revenue, merchandise, parking and stadium concessions, not to mention how highly-anticipated playoff games impact the local economy (hotels, restaurants, etc).
Traditionalists would hate it with every fiber of their being, but when has that ever stopped the NFL from making a buck? The reality is, it doesn’t much matter, because wherever the NFL goes, whether it’s staging a Thursday night game on Amazon or a 9:30 AM kickoff in London, money is sure to follow.