Say what you want about big time college football, the power conferences, computer rankings, even major rivalry week, one of the best stories in the game will take place not in Boston, where Harvard will meet Yale for the Ivy league title and ESPN College GameDay will be on hand, or in LA when USC meet UCLA or when Mississippi and Mississippi State meet for the Egg Bowl, or even when Auburn meets Alabama. Those will be great matchups will fill stadia and lots of media coverage. But try drawing 50,000 for almost ANY college football game to Yankee Stadium (which had a little more than half of that total for UConn and Army last week), and then try doing it with two Patriot League schools with losing records.
Fantasy correct? Nope. Reality. That’s what will happen Saturday when Lehigh and Lafayette meet for the 150th time, the longest rivalry in college football. This one, for only the second time ever, will be at a neutral site (the 1891 game was played in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania) and it will be a draw beyond anyone’s imagination.
Now this was not something that the folks in The Bronx dreamed up on their own, like has happened with other matchups and the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. All of those games have served as a great addition and revenue driver for the Stadium, with each one having tis own marketing and P and L. This game? Stand alone, baby. No marketing from the Pinstripe folks, minimal advertising.
It was all driven, with not a huge amount of corporate support by the enterprising athletic directors at the two schools and their staffs, who conceived of the idea five years ago, way back when Twitter was just getting going if people can think back that far, especially in the get it done now world of college and professional sports.
Joe Sterrett of Lehigh and Bruce McCutcheon of Lafayette, both of whom have been leaders in finding ways to market and grow the bottom line at their respective schools over the years, took it upon themselves to sell the idea not just as a buzz worthy event, but as a revenue-generator for the programs, a one-time event worthy of a big stage. Initial goals, according to most reports, were a break-even of around 20,000 seats, priced moderately between $6 and $35. The suites would also be available at a price, with the Stadium working together to control costs and see whatever the upside would be. The two AD’s got long-term buy in from every level of their respective universities to make this the must-attend event for anyone involved in the two schools or in the Lehigh Valley and surrounding areas, events began to line up the night prior and the night following, touting development, marketing and alumni. Fraternal groups rallied to help make the event a cause celebre’ for the future. Students, as always, would still get in free.
The hoopla even extended to Wall Street, where the presidents of both schools set up fundraising events and will get to ring the closing bell at the NYSE. Others came up with the idea to get the Empire State Building done in school colors on Saturday night. The buzz built over five years, and the result is an event that surpassed expectations, and according to many reporters, will generate over seven times the revenue for the two schools that their regular on-campus meeting, which always is a big draw in the 10-15 k range as it rotates between the two eastern Pennsylvania campuses.
Is the huge draw an anomaly in the usual daily calendar of sports, especially on the college level? More than likely. Another outlier has been Cornell hockey which has packed Madison Square Garden several times around the Thanksgiving weekend, while other collegiate hockey events draw a fraction of the bodies and the eyeballs. Once again, it was self-marketed for the long-term by the school as a rallying point for all things Cornell, and in this case it worked. Harvard-Yale hockey has done a similar job at MSG last year and this, but other events haven’t come close, and college football and hoops for a large part do OK but not outstanding, even with a much larger marketing and business activation spend in major arenas. For sure there will be programs that will look at Lehigh-Lafayette this weekend and say hey we can do at least 2/3 of that for our rivalry game, but many times the expectations fall flat for a number of reasons, from time to TV to weather to the matter of disposable income.
However for this one year, Lehigh-Lafayette caught lightening in a bottle, which combined with a dedicated and passionate and visionary administration, and some long term vision in a short term world, really made the Saturday matchup a classic not for what happens on the field, but for what it has become as a special event. Kudos Leopards and Mountain Hawk leadership on a job well done.