There's no denying that St. Louis is a fantastic sports city—especially when it comes to college athletics. The city's centralized location and facilities make it an ideal location for major national events. It has hosted numerous NCAA championship events over the past few years, including both a men's and women's Final Four, a men's ice hockey Frozen Four and the NCAA Division I wrestling championships, just to name a few. Plus, there's the annual Braggin' Rights game in the winter and Arch Madness in the spring.
Oddly enough, one of the only major collegiate sports that St. Louis is not involved with is arguably the biggest one—Division I-A college football.
Missouri and Illinois used to play their annual rivalry game in St. Louis. Following a seven-year hiatus that began in 1995, they shifted the series to the Edward Jones Dome with games in 2002, 2003 and from 2007-2010. The two sides seemed to have a good thing going—the games were well-attended (six games drew an average of 62,753 fans) and the agreement came with a guaranteed $1 million payout for both schools. However, Mizzou was also playing its rivalry game against Kansas in Kansas City, Mo. and Illinois was preparing to expand Memorial Stadium. Because of this, the two sides agreed to scrap the series game in favor of an extra home game.
"This has been a big-time game that draws good income and TV coverage. With all that said, since we want to get to seven or eight home games, you have to evaluate the neutral game," former Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther said at the time. "The suite and season ticket-holders deserve the seventh home game if we can get it."
Since then, St. Louis has hosted a men's ice hockey regional, a cross country championship, the USA Gymnastics VISA Championships, two rounds of the NCAA Tournament and even a Senior PGA Championship event.
But still no major college football games…at least not yet.
The St. Louis Sports Commission, the organization responsible for bringing the aforementioned laundry list of events (plus many others) to St. Louis, has been working diligently to bring a college football game to the city.
"Our bottom line is to do some more college football—big time college football—in St. Louis," Sports Commission President Frank Viverito said. "Mizzou figures into that equation almost any way you slice it. So, whether that's Mizzou/Illinois, a Mizzou conference game [or] a Mizzou non-conference game, it's at the top of our list."
Choosing the local participant was easy.
Mizzou represents the state's only FBS team and Viverito communicates regularly with Missouri athletics director Mike Alden. The difficult part comes with determining which match-up should be shifted to St. Louis. Unlike the other major conferences, the SEC does not set dates for its conference games beyond the current season. It is a rather bizarre process and one that has made it difficult for the Sports Commission to reach an agreement that would bring Mizzou football to St. Louis. For instance, both MU and U of I have multiple non-conference slots open starting in 2019. On paper, that would appear to be an ideal time to renew the Arch Rivalry series (either exclusively as a neutral site game or in some sort of rotation between the three cities), but because SEC teams are discouraged from setting dates for non-conference foes beyond the 2014 season, the involved parties have been left in something of a holding pattern.
"We've actually spoken to both schools about it," Viverito explained. "The challenge initially was the conference schedules not begin set yet. I think the Big Ten may be a little bit ahead of the SEC in terms of having date certainty for their conference games heading into the future… College football scheduling at that level is never going to fall into place easily. So, we understand that and will continue to work with it."
While bringing Mizzou and Illinois back to town for a football game does not appear to be imminent, because of a suggestion Viverito received from Alden earlier this year, there could be a Missouri football game in St. Louis as early as 2015.
"Mike suggested we take a look at [Arkansas State]," he explained. "We took the step to contact [athletics director] Terry Mohajir at Arkansas State and we've been talking for several months now."
With an opponent (the Red Wolves) and date (Sept. 12) tentatively set, focus shifted to determining the where. With the scenic city skyline as the backdrop and the brand new Ballpark Village right across the street, Busch Stadium would seem to make a lot of sense.
In 2010, two FBS games were played in Major League Baseball stadiums. The first was at Wrigley Field between Illinois and Northwestern. While there were some logistical issues concerning player safety, the game was a financial success, drawing a sell-out crowd of 41,058.
Later that season Syracuse took down Kansas State in the inaugural New Era Pinstripe Bowl, which was played at Yankee Stadium in front of a crowd of 38,274.
However, while those two games were played during the MLB off-sesason. Missouri vs. Arkansas State would take place in September, aka the most crucial point of the season for the perennial NL pennant contenders. [In case you forgot, the field didn't look too hot the last time Busch Stadium III hosted a football game.]
Nonetheless, Viverito said the Cardinals have been very receptive to the idea of hosting a Mizzou football game.
"There are always challenges scheduling any event, but I can tell you for this one, the Cardinals were very, very cooperative," he said. "The key was to make a request of Major League Baseball for the team not to be scheduled on that specific weekend and they were glad to do it.
"The Cardinals are terrific partners, as are the Rams and the Blues. With MLB being able to accommodate the Cardinals, we had that opening in their September schedule. I know the Cardinals would prefer to do games after the World Series, more likely in November, but they were receptive to holding this date for us and we're both very hopeful that we can bring the game to St. Louis."
With Missouri basketball and baseball already playing games in St. Louis on an annual basis, the Sports Commission has its sights set on bringing the football team to town for a game too.
"I don't want to put words in their mouths, but from our perspective, we're always having conversations with Missouri about sporting events in St. Louis," Viverito said.
"Obviously, Mizzou plays basketball against Illinois here every year, they play baseball against Illinois here every year, so we're constantly talking with Missouri and I've mentioned to Mike on several occasions that we'd like to see the football team here. This is the opportunity that is before us now. Mizzou's schedules are Mizzou's schedules, but any time there's a way to connect with those schedules, we're happy to do it."
Other Notes and Quotes:
Financial side of bringing Mizzou football to St. Louis: "It would depend on how the game is structured to begin with. So, if it were a neutral site game like we did with Missouri and Illinois, neither school's home game, you look at splitting the proceeds 50/50. If it's a game that's already assigned as a Mizzou home game or an Arkansas State home game, then the deal would be done with the team that has the home game. So in this instance, the financial deal would be done between the sports commission and Arkansas State."
Sports Commission's relationship with Kansas City: "There's no conflict at all. In fact, I would suggest and have already spoken to my counterpart in Kansas City, just the idea of, wouldn't it be great if Mizzou played a football game in St. Louis and in Kansas City every other year. Whether that was a conference game or a non-conference game, that it just takes one game out of Columbia. You hope that Mizzou can have seven home games a year and maybe play one game each season on either side of the state. Hopefully, that would accommodate a lot of fans and also accomplish some objectives for the Mizzou football program. So, it would be more likely to be a cooperative situation than a competitive one.
"I think everyone sort of wins if we work together on these types of things. Certainly, the right events go to the right places, but we work actively to build the profile of Mizzou football and bring the excitement of Mizzou football to St. Louis, Kansas City and surely it's a wonderful experience for Columbia."
Bringing a college bowl game to St. Louis: "We're always taking a look at all of our options. A bowl deal is kind of tough to do. I'd prefer to have a Mizzou game in town every other year because I think interest would be higher and it's probably an easier deal to put together, but like I said, we're always looking. The biggest deal we have right now is a bid for the NCAA men's Final Four. St. Louis is one of eight cities that's in the running for four Final Fours between 2017 and 2020. So, while we routinely bid for NCAA regionals and second and third round events, we're also in the mix for an upcoming Final Four."
• Comcast will carry the SEC Network, which will now be available in a reported 46 million homes. John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal reports that DirecTV and Time Warner Cable are also close to SEC Network deals too. The network will debut in 27 days.
Brian Haenchen is a three-sport columnist for InsideSTL. Follow him on Twitter: @Brian_Haenchen.