Why you should care

Because your boss keeps insisting you can like sports if you try hard enough.

On the first Saturday of September, the University of Tennessee Volunteers and the Virginia Tech Hokies played a football game that, under normal circumstances, would have won little attention outside of the nation’s biscuits and gravy belt. But this game was not played under normal circumstances.

For starters, it wasn’t played in a football stadium. Billed as “the Battle at Bristol,” the game took place on the infield of Bristol Motor Speedway, halfway between the two universities. That setting allowed for another abnormality —156,990 attendees, shattering a 3-year-old record by more than 30,000 fans.

The visuals of a hockey rink inside a massive NFL stadium are always striking.

The Vols won the game, but that’s almost an afterthought. The reason many of those fans attended, and the reason the game was the highest rated of the weekend, was because of the novelty. For those at home, it was a reason to watch a football game they wouldn’t otherwise care about. For those in attendance, it was a unique game-day experience and a must-tell story. Whitney Johnson, a VP for event sponsor Pilot Flying J, was one of those fans in attendance. “The whole game weekend had an indescribable excitement and energy around it,” Johnson says. “It exceeded my expectations — the mix of the college crowds and the field set against the racetrack was incredible. It defined epic.”

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New Jersey Devils v. New York Rangers at the Yankee Stadium.

Source Bruce Bennett / Getty

Sporting events in nontraditional venues have been a trend for about a decade, but no one does them quite like the originators in the NHL, which has staged the Winter Classic in outdoor venues since 2008. The visuals of a hockey rink inside a massive NFL stadium are always striking, and on those occasions when it has snowed during Winter Classic games, it’s downright romantic to watch the world’s greatest hockey players skate around in the snow like they’re kids on a backyard rink.

Not that there aren’t reasons to dislike outdoor games. They can be an obscene waste of money and resources that prioritize TV ratings and sponsor exposure over the fan experience. And as the trend has been pushed in recent years, it’s led to the health of athletes being put at risk for such failed experiments as playing basketball on aircraft carriers.

Still, when done right, the sporting event played outside of its normal setting is a joyous novelty. As fun as the games themselves are, there’s a reason more than 150,000 went to Bristol to see a football game, and it wasn’t the Hokies and the Vols.

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