During last week’s open forum featuring athletic director Shane Lyons, the topic of future scheduling took precedence. Lyons’ previewed future matchups with old conference and regional rivals like Pittsburgh and Penn State, but it was some of his final comments that have interestingly gone unnoticed.
“I’ve had some conversations with our potential interest in Bristol (Tennessee),” Lyons’ stated. “If it’s the right matchup in the right year, but again, we’re not going to look at that as an every-year deal. But if it works within our schedule and what we can do, with the right opponent, that may be something different for us and Mountaineer Nation.”
West Virginia is no stranger to playing in marquee season-opening games away from home. The Mountaineers began their recent run of neutral site games in 2013 against Maryland and in 2014 against Alabama. Currently, there are future games set against Virginia Tech in Landover, Maryland this season, against Tennessee in Charlotte in 2018 and against Flordia State in Atlanta in 2020. Bristol provides an opportunity to take the idea of playing a neutral site game to a whole new level.
Last season, the Bristol Motor Speedway made history by hosting the largest-ever attended game in NCAA history with the inaugural Battle at Bristol between Virginia Tech and Tennessee. Over 156,000 people poured into the speedway and watched the Volunteers storm back to defeat the Hokies 45-24. Not only did the game shatter previous attendance records, it also included lucrative nearly $4.3 million payouts to each school. In contrast, the West Virginia football program collected roughly $3.35 million in 2015 for playing in the Cactus Bowl and $2.27 million for the Athletic Bowl in 2016. Financially, Bristol provides great appeal. But what took place in Bristol last year can’t be replicated.
Bristol is approximately under a two-hour drive from both Knoxville and Blacksburg. Having Tennessee and Virginia Tech play a game in an area that boasts thousands of fans of each school and a short drive for others was natural. It wouldn’t have worked any other way, but Bristol believes the allure of playing at the speedway will attract other programs in the future.
Let’s pretend that Lyons’ comments aren’t just fluff. By simply looking at the amount of money that Bristol has to offer, it seems obvious Lyon’s would answer that phone call. Given that Morgantown and the heart of the West Virginia fan base aren’t as close as Tennessee’s or Virginia Tech’s, it seems impossible that 156,000 people would travel to Bristol. But Mountaineers fans travel exceeding well. Well enough that the roughly 7-hour trip wouldn’t seem unbearable for many. Bristol can’t be looking to replicate what it accomplished in 2016, but if even 80,000 or 100,000 people make their way to the speedway for another college football game, it makes sense to try.
On the flip side, even if, and it’s a big if, West Virginia was set to rake in $3-3.5 million for a kickoff game, the interest should be mutual. The fact that Lyons opened up about the possibility of this game actually taking place says a lot. But he’s correct in saying that it depends on the opponent and the year.
Despite Lyons saying he is not “looking that far out”, he is receiving phone calls about the 2035 season. The years to watch for, however, is 2026 and 2027, in which the Mountaineers do not currently have any scheduled non-conference games. Bristol has made it obvious that it is not looking to make their Battle at Bristol contest an annual event, but the desire for future games clearly exists.
It’s really the potential opponent that West Virginia is concerned about.
Obviously, it has to be a regional school and a successful football program for that matter. Losing teams don’t sell tickets after all. West Virginia makes sense because the actual West Virginia border is less than a two-hour drive from Bristol. There is reasons to believe and a reliable track record that West Virginia will be able to sell out a standard allotment of 40,000-45,000 tickets, but it needs a counterpart to do the same.
Some possible suitors include the likes of Clemson, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Clemson is currently sitting atop the college football world after beating Alabama in the 2016 national championship game. Tigers fans would only need to travel less than 3 hours to make it to Bristol. Columbia, South Carolina is only 3 hours away for Gamecocks fans despite being almost irrelevant in the SEC. North Carolina fans have a bit longer trip at a little under 4 hours. Of the three, Clemson makes the most sense. A mixture of success and a large fan base willing to travel usually adds up to selling out ticket alotments. The only issue having Clemson as one of the opponents is that the Tigers are already slated to take on the Gamecocks and Charleston Southern in 2026 and Notre Dame and South Carolina in 2027. It’s possible Clemson still accepts an invite but its set schedule may make it difficult.
Even if the Mountaineers commit to Bristol, it will be a challenge to find an opponent that checks all the boxes.
But there is a chance.