The story behind Nebraska and Northwestern playing their Big Ten opener in Ireland

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The last time Northwestern played a home football game against Nebraska for fans to attend was an October day, it was homecoming and a capacity crowd of more than 47,000 saw the Wildcats score a comeback win in overtime that helped them to a Big Ten championship game.

On Saturday, Northwestern will play its home game against the Cornhuskers in Dublin, Ireland. It’s an event that places significant demands on both schools in return for nearly unfettered national TV coverage during the sport’s opening weekend and a largely paid opportunity to engage donors and fans and give players a brief taste of Irish culture before they return to the other side of the world. an ocean and half of the US.

So what went to two schools of one of the two richest conferences in college athletics traveling thousands of miles for a league game?

Northwestern running back Evan Hull (26) runs with the ball against Purdue during the second quarter at Wrigley Field.

Northwestern’s decision came with some costs. The Wildcats, who have played in two of the last four Big Ten championships, agreed to put themselves at a significant competitive disadvantage. They would already play four home conference games in the Big Ten’s nine-game league schedule this season. Now they will only receive three conference opponents: No. 18 Wisconsin, No. 2 Ohio State and Illinois.

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According to John Anthony, the founder and CEO of Anthony Travel and director of Irish American Events Limited, which arranged the contracts for this game, Northwestern will be well compensated for sacrificing that home game. As a private school, Northwestern is exempt from making such agreements public, but Anthony said it receives “the lion’s share of the economic benefits” for its home team role. In addition to covering most of its expenses, Nebraska will receive $250,000 from the organizers, according to a contract USA TODAY Sports obtained from the university through an open request for data.

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As for Northwestern’s share, last year Kansas State moved its scheduled home game with Stanford to Arlington, Texas, and was paid $2.8 million. Houston received $2.4 million to play Texas Tech at NRG Stadium, home of the NFL’s Houston Texans, rather than the on-campus facility. The numbers for Kansas State and Houston were from contracts for those games.

Northwestern campus spokesman Jon Yates told USA TODAY Sports that the university declined to comment on the event from a university perspective and athletics department spokesman Paul Kennedy did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment. about the game.

In addition to the financial gain, Northwestern will receive a coveted first-class national timeslot on TSWT, something the Wildcats only had once last season. While it already has the media appeal of an international match, Saturday’s match has the added benefit of being Power Five schools’ only match in week 0.

Because classes in Northwestern don’t begin until September 21 and no game is scheduled for September 3, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said he’s letting his team take advantage of being in a different country not only before, but also after the game. is.

“We really wanted to make it something special,” Fitzgerald said at a press conference this week. “An overwhelming majority of our team had never been out of the country, let alone in Ireland. And with the Big Ten saying goodbye to us the following week, we’re staying in the country on Sunday, giving a chance to our boys whose families can make it, spend some time soaking up as much of the culture and as much of the land as possible and then fly back here on Monday.”

Northwestern alum and major benefactor of college and athletics Pat Ryan, namesake of the school’s football stadium and field home, will also be honored during the first half of Saturday’s game. Aon Corporation, an insurance and consulting firm founded by since-retired CEO Ryan, is a corporate sponsor of Saturday’s contest.

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The game is a big undertaking to run. Nebraska’s contract was signed by the school and Irish American Events Limited in May 2021, just 15 months ago. The Cornhuskers were due to play against Illinois in Ireland last season, but the match was instead hosted by the Fighting Illini due to COVID-19.

Who would play Nebraska this year came down to a numbers game. It wouldn’t happen that the Cornhuskers had to give up a home game. Their Memorial Stadium ranks fourth in conference and 13th in college football with a capacity of over 90,000 and has been sold out for every game since 1962. Their five opponents were Northwestern, Rutgers, Purdue, Michigan and Iowa. The Wildcats were the best match, as Ryan Field is the only Big Ten football stadium with a capacity of less than 50,000. Northwestern failed to sell out a single game during the 2021 season.

Under the contract, Nebraska was to launch multiple marketing campaigns for game tickets, travel packages, corporate hospitality and events, and host travel parties that went well beyond the typical away game. The school will travel with more than 200 people, including 115 football players and a minimum of 70 band members and cheerleaders.

Part of the contract puts a lot of emphasis on tourism and event planning. Nebraska is required to participate in such things as a welcome parade, a tailgate organized by the school’s president, and a “US-Ireland CEO Club Event.”

Nebraska had to prepare a list of 80 Nebraska-affiliated CEOs and business leaders who would be invited to the event. According to a university spokesperson, Nebraska compiled the list from names of people who had already bought tickets.

“I think the entire state of Nebraska has a trade mission,” Trev Alberts, Nebraska’s athletic director, told USA TODAY Sports as he discussed how the school decides on his travel party. “The governor is involved; there are many moving parts.’

The matchup has been well received. According to Anthony, more than 13,000 Americans will make the trip for the game, making this the largest inbound tourism event for Ireland this year. In total, Aviva Stadium will host an estimated 35,000 people during game time.

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“Ireland really embraces this,” Anthony said. “They have so much business growth and economic growth and employment growth with the US. There’s an immediate outgrowth of these games and some that just keep growing naturally.”

For the teams involved, setting up the game is not without major logistical hurdles. Both teams arrived a few days before Saturday’s game. Nebraska has the added challenge of combining the first week of classes with this itinerary. To make up for the missing three days of education, the team will take academic advisors on a journey and make time for educational periods. Nebraska is due to return to the United States on September 3 for a game against North Dakota.

Nebraska will place its entire travel party of more than 200 people on planes immediately after the game ends. That plane will arrive at 5 a.m. CT Sunday, according to Keith Mann, Nebraska’s associate athletic director.

To combat the side effects of international travel, Nebraska has worked with an in-house sports science team to maximize sleep patterns and reduce the negative effects of jet lag and time zone differences. The team recommended that Nebraska return to the United States as soon as possible, hence the hasty exit from Ireland.

This strange arrangement could become more commonplace. Notre Dame and Navy, originally scheduled to play in Ireland in 2020, will play in Dublin in 2023. Anthony said he’s seen “many” Power Five conferences show great interest in playing internationally in the future. While Ireland is the only country with a plan that is ‘in progress’, other countries have started reaching out about the potential to host future teams.

“So much needs to be done for it to happen, especially economically,” Anthony said. “It’s so expensive to set up a game like this. So yes, everyone is interested in the tourism that we can bring, but whether they can support it, to make it possible remains to be seen.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nebraska, Northwestern playing Big Ten game in Ireland could become a trend

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