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Syracuse vs. Notre Dame: Once more unto the MetLife breach, dear friends

The MetLife games were supposed to help Syracuse football rise to new heights. They did not.

Syracuse v USC Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images

Metlife Stadium. It was supposed to be Syracuse Orange football’s home away from home for the next three decades. Instead, there’s a good chance SU won’t play a football game here again for a very long time. What happened?

In the heyday of the neutral site game, Syracuse signed a deal with what was to become MetLife Stadium to play “home” games in East Rutherford, NJ against USC in 2012, Penn State in 2013, Notre Dame in 2014, and Notre Dame in 2016. In 2011, before any of those games were played, Syracuse & MetLife Stadium agreed to a ten-game extension which would have added additional games between 2019 and 2038.

“Our alumni base in the New York metropolitan area is strong,” said SU Athletic Director Daryl Gross in the press release. “Just as our fans have followed the basketball team for many years at Madison Square Garden, we expect the same dominant orange crowd support for New York’s College Team at the New Meadowlands...Playing at the New Meadowlands allows us to showcase the Syracuse brand in the most global way while generating tremendous recruiting opportunities and resources to enhance football.”

At the time the deal was hailed as “unquestionably a coup for the university” and why not? It cemented SU’s spot in their recruiting backyard, gave NYC-area Orange fans easy access to their team, and stuck it to Rutgers & UConn at the same time. It was also supposed to be a money-generator for a program desperate to stock the reserves.

For those who disliked the arrangement, mostly Central New York locals upset at missing out on the chance to see quality games in the Carrier Dome, the response was summed up by the infamous “I don't think a lot of people understand the idea of brand,” quote from then-SU Athletics’ chief of communications Joe Giansante.

In reality, the results were not as intended.

Just three games into what was now a 14-game agreement stretching into 2038, the deal mysteriously evaporated. With little fanfare, Giansante told reporters that the contract between the two entities had been “revisited” and uttered jargon-y gobbledygook like how the contract had “provisions to re-look at financials and look at the parameters of the deal based on time and place.”

The unsaid issue seemed to be that the deal turned out to be a pretty bad one for MetLife Stadium.

Against USC in 2012, Syracuse put up a fight but never quite challenged in a 42-29 loss in front of 39,507. That’s an abysmal attendance number (MetLife holds 82,566), especially when some noted that it was more USC fans than Syracuse ones. Against Penn State in 2013, the Orange lost again but attendance was up to 61,202, thanks in large part to having a loyal and local Nittany Lions fanbase nearby. The 2014 game (another loss) against Notre Dame drew a crowd of 76,802, breaking the stadium’s college football attendance record, though again it was the “road team” who was credited with the boost. It was by then that MetLife had seen enough, realizing that unless Syracuse played Notre Dame every time, the financials just didn’t add up. Not to mention that SU didn’t seem capable of winning any of these games, thereby robbing them of any sense that national audiences needed to care.

The deal didn’t make sense for MetLife but what about Syracuse? Were the Orange getting what they wanted out of the deal?

For years, the mantra behind why SU needed to schedule these games was threefold:

  1. Visibility in the No. 1 media market.
  2. It’s the only way SU will be able to host big-time opponents.
  3. Recruiting.

As we’ve since learned, none of those things were really true.

Visibility - Yes, playing at MetLife Stadium did get Syracuse Football is front of eyeballs in the Greater NYC Area but based on attendance and the stunning lack of interest from most New Yorkers, the meter didn’t exactly move. NYC just doesn’t care about college football and there’s little proof that playing these games added any value beyond what’s already established by SU Basketball and the New York’s College Team campaign.

Marquee Opponents - This was probably true when Syracuse first started playing at MetLife. There would have been no reason for USC to travel to Central New York to play a football game while still at the height of their powers. But dangling a chance to play in the shadow of NYC in front of them probably sealed the deal. It also made it a lot easier to schedule mighty Notre Dame, which is always good for the bottom line.

Now, however, things are different. The biggest change is the fact that SU is in the ACC and the entire college football landscape shifted between the time this series began and where things stood by 2014.

Syracuse got LSU to travel to the Carrier Dome, which still seems shocking, but definitely happened. It’s proof that big-time opponents are still happy to make the trip. As for Notre Dame, because of their arrangement with the ACC, they’re contractually-obligated to play Syracuse every couple years no matter what. So Syracuse doesn’t have to do anything to entice the Irish anymore. They have to come to the Carrier Dome, they have no choice.

Having the option to call an audible and do a one-off with MetLife is probably still a good card to have in your backpocket, but as the USC game proved, it still has to be a real wow factor opponent for it to make sense for the stadium. And there are only so many of those programs out there.

Recruiting - When Doug Marrone was here, Syracuse Football put a focus on the NYC area as a way to reestablish the base we’d lost during The GERG Era. SU’s roster was full of Tri-State Area talent, many of whom attended these games or at least knew that they’d be able to play a game in front of their family every season.

Now? Syracuse currently has 13 NY and seven NJ players on it’s roster. Compare that to 19 from Florida, 10 from Georgia, seven from Illinois, seven from Pennsylvania, and five from Ohio. SU’s offensive triforce of Eric Dungey, Amba Etta-Tawo, and Brisly Estime come to us from Oregon, Georgia, and Florida, respectively.

So it’s not that we don’t recruit NYC area, it’s just that it’s not the focus of our efforts anymore. To compete, Syracuse had to think bigger and look to more talent-rich places to fill in the gaps. SU would be better off scheduling a “home” game in Miami every year if the end goal is recruiting.

At the end of the day, you’d be hard-pressed to say the MetLife games have improved Syracuse Football is any tangible way. The program is on it’s third head coach since starting the series and finds itself rebuilding from the bottom once more. The national relevance never materialized, any recruiting gains are impossible to correlate, and a disenfranchised local fanbase found one more to feel disenfranchised.

The funny thing is, this Saturday’s contest, the last official one on the docket, might be the one SU has the best chance of winning. Notre Dame is in shambles and Syracuse’s offense is exactly the kind of thing that can take advantage of their porous defense.

Maybe Syracuse will peel off a win in MetLife for once. It’d be a nice way to end things, a not-so-subtle thumbing of the nose in the direction of the stadium who didn’t want to do business with us anymore. Plus, when isn’t beating Notre Dame a good thing? But win or lose the MetLife series ends long before it was supposed to and for many Syracuse fans it’s an end that didn’t come soon enough.*

*Until we announce that we’re playing Alabama there in 2019 next week...