"It's been insane this offseason. We're predicting that by 2017, the market for these games is going to blow up," a source in the event planning arm of a sports agency told SB Nation.
College football's neutral-site games are gaining in popularity because they make a lot of money for the companies and institutions involved.
But demand is even higher among schools suddenly looking to schedule tougher opponents. Consider it knee-jerk hysteria in the wake of Baylor's exclusion from the College Football Playoff, a move often explained as a product of weak non-conference scheduling.
"If you can break your $600,000 [deal for a game against] Akron to go cash $1.2 million from Allstate ... well, there's no catch any more," the agency rep said. "TCU not getting in [the Playoff despite being] at No. 3 the week before scared every athletic director shitless."
Yep, more of these are coming.
South Carolina's 2015 home game vs. North Carolina is in Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium (host status was decided via coin flip, per SC). In 2016, Florida State will leave Tallahassee to play Ole Miss in Orlando.
Not every city that hosts a game will make it annual and call it the ____ Classic, but when an organizer has a chance to book a game it thinks will make money, it will.
"Those games don't require anything more than selling a lot of tickets, and you feel comfortable doing that when you've got a major team in your backyard," the head of a major city sports commission told SB Nation.
But primetime TV can only support so many.
Partners ABC and ESPN will air this year's Dallas-Fort Worth (Alabama vs. Wisconsin) and Houston (Texas A&M vs. Arizona State) games against each other in prime time.
"More and more athletic directors are pursuing these games," the commission head said, "but where do you put them on TV? Last year, we had one on Thursday night and two against each other in primetime on Saturday on ESPN properties. Does FOX get involved? I doubt NBC would help create a game when they already have Notre Dame, but FOX might create one or two more major spots."
The biggest difference between neutral kickoffs and bowls is that bowls sell their TV rights to networks, whereas neutral games fall under the existing TV agreements for the participating schools' conferences. Event organizers don't get a dime from TV.
"There are three major forms of revenue [in the bowl model]: ticket sales, sponsorships and TV rights. Regular season games lose one of those revenue sources [TV] immediately," the city chief said. "That's why you need a major corporate sponsor to buy the naming rights at a much higher cost than the smaller bowls that exist to serve ESPN. And a corporate sponsor wants primetime national exposure. If the game is relegated to a regional broadcast midday, that will hurt."
One possibility is a wider spread of Week 1 games across the Labor Day weekend, including more Sunday and Monday games.
"That's been resisted by a lot of coaches in the past because of the short week it creates. Also, I'm not sure if those days have as strong a draw for fans traveling. But if you can lock in a Sunday night national TV slot, it would probably happen."
So it takes more than just winning games to get the spotlight.
Non-campus games are profit-driven. Just because your school could contend for a title doesn't mean it's attractive.
Will you and at least 20,000 of your friends cough up for a $150 ticket and two nights in a hotel? Schools need to prove drawing power to neutral-site organizers.
Schools that tend to appear in Atlanta and Dallas boast massive fan bases -- Alabama, LSU, Clemson, Auburn -- or are locals like TCU who can help fill Cowboys Stadium.
And organizers want stability.
"[The time between planning and the game] is getting shorter, but we're still looking at the coaching situations," said the city source. "Let's say last year we signed Michigan to come in here in '17 to play a Power 5 team. Now maybe Jim Harbaugh doesn't want to travel to open a season or wants a softer schedule as he starts to rebuild. Depending on how the contract is built, you could be stuck, or you could have a losing program coming in here that isn't ready for that kind of game."
Sometimes, organizers only need one big team.
Outside of the three big games, the revenue model shifts to tickets. If a neutral site can land a major local team, the matchup isn't as important. This year, Tennessee plays non-power Bowling Green at the Titans' stadium.
Another factor comes into play for games like power Colorado vs. non-power Colorado State, which take turns counting their series at Denver's Sports Authority Field as a home game. Smaller schools can use that to boost attendance figures. In 2013, Western Kentucky moved a home game vs. Kentucky to Nashville, allowing the Hilltoppers to claim the crowd of 30,000 as home attendance.
"You're seeing games with a regional focus allow for schools outside the Power 5 to get games they'd never be able to host," the city head said.
Want games on college campuses? Hope in unlikely allies.
In 2013, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany issued a memo requiring any Big Ten school playing off-campus games to be designated the home team in at least half of the matchups, and that half of the games take place in the Big Ten's footprint. The two-game series between LSU and Wisconsin in Houston and Green Bay is the example.
But if you're a purist loathe to see historic college programs playing in metropolitan domes, you're not alone. Various agencies hold contracts for sponsorships with schools and conferences. They control in-game advertisements, but only on campus.
Corporate interests could push for more marquee games on campus, but will that counter the logistical simplicity of playing one neutral-site game instead of a home-and-home series?
"The concept is not something we like," the sports agency rep said. "We don't make any money when teams leave campus. A six-game contract is less lucrative to us than a seven-game one, basically. So we want on-campus games for the purity of the sport, too."