Let’s get the criticisms out the way. Neutral-site college football games—like Ole Miss’ game against Texas Tech in Houston this Saturday—are not a perfect substitute for a traditional home-and-home series. They’re more trendy than they are traditional, and their gameday atmospheres are stale and corporate. College football, when crammed in a parking lot-surrounded NFL stadium, is robbed of the on-campus football experience that is so unique to the sport, and feels somewhat like a sort of a sellout, catering to the needs of television networks and corporate sponsors in a transparently shameless money grab by all involved.
These criticisms are all valid and fair. Neutral-site college football games, aside from traditional rivalry games played in a central location, have an unmistakably artificial character to them. They are college football in the way that Splenda is definitely sweet, but can’t properly replace real sugar. Watching the Chick-fil-A cows bop around the Georgia Dome while Ole Miss played Boise State on a Thursday night was fun, but it could never have adequately replaced a proper weekend of similar-quality football in Oxford (or in Boise, for that matter).
So I get it. I really do. I’m still really glad Ole Miss participates in them, and I hope they keep doing so for the foreseeable future.
Neutral site games are an easier trip for out-of-state fans.
My reasoning in favor of these games is, admittedly, selfish. Simply put, the logistics of attending these games are much easier for me than games in Oxford are. And Oxford is not the only college town for which this applies. Tuscaloosa, Fayetteville, Knoxville, Gainesville, and a whole host of other college towns throughout the country are not themselves large cities, nor are they particularly close to anything other than themselves, save for a few regionally significant transportation hubs (Memphis isn’t exactly the most well-connected commercial airport, y’all). Getting to and from these places is usually expensive and time-consuming. Getting to a place like Atlanta, Orlando, or Houston isn’t.
I won’t bore you with the particulars, but consider this: I will be traveling from, Washington, DC, the city of my residence, to Oxford for Ole Miss’ Homecoming during the first week of October. The relative limited availability of flights to and from Memphis (via Atlanta, in this case), and the distance of the Memphis airport from Oxford, means I’m probably going to spend upwards of nine hours door-to-door traveling just to get to town.
Don’t get me wrong, that weekend’s going to whip mega ass (catch me at City Grocery if you can), but it will be relatively time consuming and expensive compared to this upcoming weekend. Getting from DC to Houston, it turns out, can take about half as much time for about $100 less. The same story could have been said about a trip to many of the other cities where these sorts of opening weekend, neutral-site games are held. Geography and economies of scale, y’all.
If the goal of Ole Miss football fans is to watch Ole Miss football in person, then these NFL stadium-hosted neutral site games are the easier, less expensive option for me, and I can guarantee that there are literally of thousands of Ole Miss alumni for whom this is also the case. These sorts of games are, perhaps ironically, is more accessible to us. Of course this is not something that we should want for every game we play—nothing can replace a game weekend in Oxford—but for those of us who live in places flung far away from Mississippi, these opportunities to play in a neutral site are highly welcomed conveniences.
Neutral-site games are also just a good excuse for a fun trip.
The other, more obvious reason to support these games is the built-in excuse of using your college football fandom to spend time in a different location. I’m excited to visit Houston! Houston’s a huge city with lots of things to do, which makes it a perfectly fine place to spend a three-day weekend. Given the current NCAA postseason ban, this will be, in a sense, Ole Miss’ bowl game this year. This is our chance to take this show on the road, play a team we don’t typically play, and turn the whole experience into a sort of mini vacation. It will be fun for the fans in attendance because, for many of us, it will be a reason to do something new or different.
But, perhaps most significantly to me, Saturday’s game will be actual, live football after months and months of experiencing not-football. Yes, it will be in a soulless, corporate-sponsored, concrete husk planted atop a pile of asphalt, the experience will be borderline phony, and the football might not even be all that good—but it will be football, actual football that I will get to consume in person. That’s got to count for something.