The Battle at Bristol is a great name for a great game between Tennessee and Virginia Tech that will almost surely be the best spectacle of the 2016 college football season. And great is the right adjective, in the sense that this is going to be bigger and grander than anything college football's seen before.
The idea that Bristol Motor Speedway (capacity: 160,000 seats) is many times bigger than Tennessee's Neyland Stadium, the fourth-largest college football venue in America, already captured the imagination of college football's Twitterati. The event's hype video, possibly narrated by an actual block of granite, touts Bristol as "the last great coliseum."
And, despite how bad the views are going to be, fans will flock to the speedway en masse to see this spectacle. It's one of the best gambits I've seen college football programs try: leveraging the Fear of Missing Out that has become a selling point for so many one-off special events into a big game that will literally be the biggest game ever, all to draw fans from both sides and the general public.
But that gambit works well for a single game. We can look to college basketball for proof.
The 2011 edition of the Carrier Classic was awesome because it was novel, big, and unique. North Carolina and Michigan State were blue-blood programs with national followings, and drew plenty of fans to sunny San Diego for the game — which President Obama attended. Our Brian Floyd wrote in that link that "This, friends, is how every basketball game should be played."
And so college basketball, a sport that just knows that too much is not enough, tripled down on the idea for 2012. Syracuse and San Diego State would meet off the shore in San Diego; Ohio State and Marquette would play a game near Charleston, S.C.; Florida and Georgetown would reprise their 2006 NCAA Tournament thriller in Jacksonville. The idea was a spectacular failure: Ohio State and Marquette never took the court due to condensation, and Florida and Georgetown played just a half before their game was scrapped. Syracuse finished its game, and beat San Diego State in an ugly affair, but the damage was done on the East Coast, and the idea of basketball games on boats now feels like a two-year blip proving that catching lightning in a bottle is easier to do once than repeat.
But I was at that Florida-Georgetown game, and so I know why fans will flock to these games. I live in Gainesville, not far from Jacksonville, so the travel wasn't that hard, but I still made the decision that forking over $500 for a ticket — technically, $1,000 for two, though going with a friend helped "defray" the cost — was worth it to see a game between two good teams at a unique venue. And though the game itself was lackluster, and sitting many rows up on the U.S.S. Bataan did not afford me a great view, the spectacle — the sheer "Holy s--t" experience of being loaded onto a U.S. Navy vessel, watching a basketball game in the open air at night, and seeing fireworks over the water at halftime — was worth it.
I got an experience that was worth going out of my way for. I suspect nearly every fan who goes to Bristol to see this game will feel similarly, and I think it might be more likely that they will: Both fan bases aren't going far to get to Bristol, the speedway is a perfect locale for tailgating, a night football game on a Saturday at a speedway is easier to manage than a night basketball game on a Friday on military ground, and there are assuredly tons of Vols and Hokies that are also huge NASCAR fans, so trekking to Bristol is a pilgrimage of a sort.
The idea of football games at NASCAR tracks is better than the idea of basketball games on boats, too. While there will be copycat attempts — Daytona has wanted a game for a while, the idea of Alabama or Auburn playing in front of 175,000 fans at Talladega is almost too irresistible to not come to fruition, and Notre Dame's willingness to do anything for spectacle's sake would make a game at the Brickyard worth investigating — they will be rare, and while there are weather concerns, they certainly pale in comparison to the idea that mere humidity can scuttle a ship-based scuffle.
I do have one major concern, though: How in the world is any game at Neyland or Lane Stadium in 2016 going to measure up to the biggest game in college football history?
The Vols and Hokies are going to need to sell tickets to games at their own home stadiums, too, and that's likely to be harder with this game on the schedule. This will almost certainly run fans' tabs well into high triple digits — because it's sure to be a night game, it's going to require a hotel room or an RV rental for at least Saturday night — and those fans can probably get season tickets for the cost of this one game. And because a) this is the sort of event that will seem like a premium and b) the schools are maybe getting 40,000-ticket guarantees for a 160,000-seat venue, scalpers and resellers are going to dominate the ticket market. Even if that doesn't appreciably jack up the price, it introduces a bigger hassle than buying from the schools directly.
Fans won't choose between going to Bristol and going to a Tennessee game; they'll choose between going to Bristol and going to four Tennessee games, and Blacksburg businesses will carp about losing the potential of a massive fan base in town for a stupid game down on a track. Though the millions both schools will take in seem like large sums, the hundreds of thousands of dollars that businesses operating with smaller margins in both towns will miss out on will be figuratively bigger.
And then there's this game's place in the increasing decentralization of the college fan's experience. There aren't that many college programs that keep enough alumni around after graduation to fill stadiums, and all of them rely heavily on nostalgia as the draw for coming back to old stomping grounds for games. If the biggest game of the year is taking place at a racetrack, fraternity brothers and sorority sisters will assuredly road trip to it, but they won't be making the same memories of Lane Stadium or tailgating at Tennessee that they would with a home-and-home series, and the college students who go to games on campus because they can walk to them or because of peer pressure won't shell out for this one.
Cutting off those younger fans, who are already drifting away from the sport — even at Alabama, where success hasn't been the issue in six years — is sacrificing the future for the present, because a sophomore who goes to a game and decides to come back every fall after graduation for 10 years is many times more valuable for any program than a fan who will pay $750 for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The college sports industry doesn't make its money on once-in-a-liftime experiences; it uses life-long bonds to halcyon days, and the lure of creating new memories on old ones latticed together, to soak fans for tens of thousands of dollars in lifetime expeditures. Playing before the biggest crowd ever now is cool — but playing before big crowds every week is the goal. And they might be diametrically opposed.