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Column: What’s with all the international college football games?

Heck, we’ve got one coming up in the Big Ten.

Northwestern v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Last week, Northwestern and Nebraska announced that they are scheduled to open the 2022 college football season in Ireland. Given neither school is called “Notre Dame,” one might wonder why they are doing such a thing.

International college football games are nothing new, though they are rarer than, say, college hoops or professional football matchups. Besides the aforementioned matchup, Ireland has hosted a fair few college football games in recent years, and there were those two Pac-12 season openers from 2016-17. Plus, the always-desirable Bahamas Bowl.

Since the Bahamas Bowl generally features teams from the MAC and Conference USA, there have not been a ton of international games featuring Big Ten teams. In fact, the last time a member of our beloved conference played outside the US was in 2014, when Penn State took on UCF in Dublin, Ireland.

The Nebraska vs. Northwestern game marks the first scheduled matchup held outside the US for Northwestern, and the first time Nebraska is traveling abroad since the 1992 Coca-Cola Classic against Kansas State in Tokyo, Japan.

Broadly, heading overseas is no doubt an exciting opportunity for student athletes who have the chance to travel internationally and participate in cultural events abroad. Especially given student athletes are often limited in their study abroad opportunities by their training schedules and seasons, these time-constrained events strike a nice balance.

There’s also other opportunities that exist more at the program level. Jim Harbaugh has been taking Michigan players abroad during spring break. It’s certainly a boon for recruiting for a program that can’t boast winning any titles lately (and thus concludes my required dig at Michigan).

However, we have to ask: When it comes to these international opportunities, what’s the goal? With basketball, there’s a clear overseas market. The international basketball scene is robust and growing, especially with top high school players opting for G League or international opportunities over heading to college.

American football, for obvious reasons, has not caught on as much as basketball has outside the US. For starters, it must compete with soccer, which is firmly anchored as the top sport in most LATAM and EMEA markets.

There’s a practicality piece to this. While soccer (and basketball, for that matter) is easy to pick up and play in its entirety, football is expensive, complex and requires significant time and organizational investment. It’s also not an Olympic sport.

Regardless, the NFL has made getting overseas footholds a priority in recent years, with games being held regularly in Mexico City and London. These games also provide opportunities for fans to travel, and expand gameday on the home front so football fans can pretend they’re soccer fans by having breakfast beers for early morning kickoffs.

The NFL is continuing the trend into 2021, hosting two games in London after breaking the international schedule in 2020 due to COVID-19. The New York Jets are scheduled to face the Atlanta Falcons, while the Jacksonville Jaguars play the Miami Dolphins, with the games coming in consecutive weeks in October.

Again, why? Audience growth stateside is stagnant in a saturated market. The NFL, as a result, is looking elsewhere for opportunities for revenue growth. We’ve seen some of these changes come up in recent years, including bringing the NFL Draft to different cities, highly-lucrative (and exclusive) TV deals and, most recently, adding a 17th game to the regular season. However, it’s not hard to see the appeal of an untapped market of literally billions of eyeballs.

That strategy has proven successful, at least on the surface. Overseas games have sold out quickly, while brand recognition has been increasing for teams in general and the Jaguars in particular, for whom London has served as a home away from home.

While this expansion strategy certainly makes sense for a profit-centric league like the NFL, what does it mean at the college level for individual schools, their athletic departments, the leagues they are parts of and the broader college athletics landscape?

There’s certainly the sponsorship and financial benefits to participating universities. In the case of Northwestern and Nebraska, Aer Lingus is sponsoring the game.

The organizers are positioning the event as an opportunity to increase tourism, while the schools acknowledge the benefit of expanding American football overseas. The bottom line is that the goal feels strictly financial in developing college football fans overseas, while establishing a school’s brand.

Surely, there is also a recruiting benefit for student athletes and non-athlete students alike. Basketball and football recruits in particular can look to which programs tend to participate in international tournaments or training activities. Plus, since football schedules come out about a decade in advance, travel and the benefits thereof is often not a surprise.

When it comes to non-student athletes, these events can also serve as recruiting tools. Enrollment in four-year colleges has been on a downward trend, dropping about 3% per year in recent years. While athletic scholarships like, oh, I don’t know, a football scholarship to Ohio State remain highly coveted and competitive, many graduating high school seniors are opting for paths other than a very expensive four-year degree.

Colleges are naturally looking for ways to boost enrollment, and sports can act as a recruiting tool for non-athletes by sharing a name and culture with a national — now international — audience. Young sports fans might first hear about a school when watching a game. I remember my first exposure to many schools was through the NCAA Tournament or the bottomline on ESPN.

When we expand this discussion, naturally, to include Ohio State, the appeal of an international game starts to unravel. First, Ohio State remains a highly recognized and valuable brand that does not need international games to grow recognition. Additionally, with a limited number of home games — the price of tickets for which has become quite cost prohibitive — it certainly wouldn’t behoove the Buckeyes to possibly lose a home game. Harkening back to the upcoming Big Ten overseas game, Nebraska is traveling in a year when Northwestern was set to host the series game, supporting the point that Nebraska (the larger brand with the larger stadium) won’t choose to lose ticketing revenue from a home game.

Ohio State remains one of the most profitable college football programs in the NCAA, and potential lost revenue from lower-value, early-morning TV deals and one less home game might be challenging to make up, even with the appeal of an international event.

Plus, unlike Michigan, Ohio State has championships that serve as a tangible recruiting tool.

(Okay, now I really am done knocking on Michigan).