In the last home football game between Northwestern and Nebraska that fans were able to attend, played on a day in October for homecoming, the Wildcats staged a comeback and won in overtime, sending them to the Big Ten championship game.
On Saturday, the Wildcats host the Cornhuskers in Dublin, Ireland. For practically unrestricted national TV exposure on the sport’s opening weekend and a largely expenses-paid opportunity to engage benefactors and supporters, both schools are putting in a lot of work. In return, the players get a taste of Irish culture before flying back across an ocean and half the United States.
So why did two schools, each from one of the two richest leagues in collegiate athletics, fly hundreds of miles to play each other?
There was a price to be paid for Northwestern’s choice. Two of the last four years’ Big Ten title games have featured the Wildcats, so they knew a major disadvantage was in order if they wanted to play. The Big Ten’s nine-game league schedule this season already included four home conference games for them. Now only No. 18 Wisconsin, No. 2 Ohio State, and Illinois remain on their home schedule as conference opponents.
According to John Anthony, founder and CEO of Anthony Travel and director of Irish American Events Limited, which negotiated the contracts for this game, Northwestern will be reimbursed handsomely for giving up that home game. Anthony said that Northwestern was receiving “the lion’s share of the economic rewards” as the home team despite the fact that the university was exempt from disclosing the deal since it is a private institution. USA TODAY Sports was able to obtain a copy of the contract between Nebraska and the event’s organizers through the university’s open records policy. The deal states that Nebraska will earn $250,000.
Last year, Kansas State played its home game against Stanford in Arlington, Texas instead, and paid Northwestern $2.8 million. When the Houston Texans played the Texas Tech Red Raiders in NRG Stadium instead of the school’s stadium, the university received $2.45 million. Houston and Kansas State’s numbers came from game contracts.
Northwestern University declined to comment to USA TODAY Sports from an institutional standpoint, according to campus spokesperson Jon Yates, and athletic department spokesman Paul Kennedy did not respond to several emails requesting comment on the game.
Not only does Northwestern benefit financially, but the Wildcats will also be given a prime national time slot on Fox, something they were only granted once all of last season. Even though Saturday’s game has the media attraction of an international game because it features two teams from different countries, it also stands out because it is the only Week 0 battle between two Power Five schools.
Since Northwestern University’s fall semester doesn’t begin until September 21, and the Wildcats don’t have a game scheduled on September 3, coach Pat Fitzgerald has declared that his squad is free to make the most of their time abroad before and after the contest.
“We really wanted to make this be something exceptional,” Fitzgerald stated at a press conference this week. “The vast bulk of our group had never ever gone outside of the United States, let alone to Ireland. Since we have a bye the following week thanks to the Big Ten, we plan to spend Sunday in the nation, allowing our players whose families can travel with them to see as much of the country and its culture as they can before returning to the United States on Monday.”
The first half of Saturday’s game will be dedicated to honoring Pat Ryan, a Northwestern alumnus and prominent university and athletics booster who is also the namesake of the school’s football stadium and field house. The insurance and consulting firm Aon Corporation, which Ryan created before retiring as CEO, is a major sponsor of Saturday’s event.
It’s a massive undertaking to create this game. The agreement between the University of Nebraska and Irish American Events Limited was finalized 15 months ago, in May of 2021. Last year’s meeting between the Cornhuskers and Illinois was supposed to take place in Ireland, but COVID-19 forced the Fighting Illini to move the game to Illinois instead.
It boiled down to a mathematical equation as to who Nebraska will play this season. The Cornhuskers simply couldn’t afford to lose at home. Their Memorial Stadium has a capacity of more than 90,000, making it the 13th largest in all of collegiate football. Northwestern, Rutgers, Purdue, Michigan, and Iowa were their five road opponents. Given that Ryan Field is the only Big Ten football stadium with a capacity below 50,000, it was a natural choice for the Wildcats. During the 2021 season, Northwestern did not sell out a single home game.