On Saturday, Army and Navy will square off for one of college football's most historic rivalries for the 112th time since 1899. The city of Philadelphia has hosted 71 of the past 81 meetings between the two service academies; Saturday's 3 p.m. contest at Lincoln Financial Field – presented by USAA – will represent the 84th time the City of Brotherly Love has hosted the contest.
The Philadelphia Sports Congress, an arm of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, works closely with both service academies to ensure the relationship continues. Larry Needle – the Philadelphia Sports Congress executive director since 1997 and an attendee of more than a dozen Army-Navy games – sat down with The American Legion to talk about why Philadelphia is such a good fit for "America's Game."
The American Legion: What kind of impact – outside of the financial aspects – does the Army-Navy game have on your city?
Larry Needle: It really means a lot to us. Beyond seeing Army-Navy as our bowl game... there's definitely a real connection with Army-Navy and the city, and obviously a lot of that goes to the fact it's been here well over 100 years. I think that the many ties that are there when you look at that Philadelphia is the birthplace of the Army, the birthplace of the Navy, the Marines Corps – the roots just run very deep as it relates to Philadelphia and the military. When you add 100 years of families, generation after generation coming to Philadelphia – grandparents and parents and children coming back to Philadelphia – I think all of that really combines to just make it something that's incredibly special for us. I think we see it really as an opportunity to recognize and honor the men and women of the military. And I know that I personally – and we as an organization and as a city – when we see the cadets and the (midshipmen) and the veterans who are in town, it makes you stop, take pause and I think really appreciate all that they do and have done for all of us. We look at it as a chance to really roll out the red carpet for all those folks and let them know how much we appreciate their service.
Q: What kind of financial boon does Army-Navy create for Philadelphia?
A: We did a study... in 2006 that told us the game generated about a $35 million economic impact for the city and an even a larger number for the region as a whole. We look at 50,000 visitors coming into the city. You look at probably 15,000-20,000 room nights that are utilized at the hotels. So really, it's one of the biggest weekends for the city's hospitality community, and one that we don't take for granted from that standpoint, either.
Q: Is there an ongoing dialog with both service academies during the course of the year about the previous and upcoming games?
A: We have a steering committee that meets certainly several times during the year... so there are a lot of opportunities for dialog: comparing notes, getting feedback. At the same time, through our Army-Navy Host Committee – which is chaired by Adm. Tom Lynch from the Navy side and Ron Naples from the Army side – there's dialog with the superintendents and other leadership at the academies, and certainly the athletic directors. It's nice to hear the positive feedback, but sometimes it's even more constructive to hear anything they ask us to work on, or vice versa. After all these years we have a great open, honest relationship and are able to share that.
Q: What does it mean to have names like presenting sponsor USAA and participating sponsor Chevrolet attached to this game?
A: It's meant a lot having USAA, and now Chevy in recent years, stepping up and being such vital partners with the game. The experience they have in working on other national events, they're able to bring that expertise to us, and ideas on new and different things we can be doing with the game. For example, we're going to be having a big card stunt at the game right after the national anthem this year, which USAA really brought to the table and is helping to fund and which we think is a great new addition. They are incredibly important American companies, and their connection and support of the military is so strong that it really is just an incredibly natural fit.
Q: Your city is scheduled to host the game in 2013, 2015 and 2017. Do you ever see a day while you are here that the city isn't hosting this game at least every other year?
A: We certainly would like to think not. I think that it is a special relationship. There's mutual appreciation and respect with Philadelphia as the host city and the academies, and really the product at the end of the day that we're able to deliver to both the academies, the teams, their fans and everybody that comes. The history that we're able to bring, the geography, our venue we think is world class, the proximity of the stadium to our hotels and night life – just that entire package we think can't be replicated. So certainly it's something that we, in a perfect world, would love to never see move around. We recognize that there are some realities – other cities are battling hard to get the game, and the academies may decide to move it around on occasion. But at the end of the day, we certainly consider Philadelphia to be Army-Navy's home, and we think the academies feel the same.
Q: People say that this isn't just a football game, that there's a different feeling in the stadium. Is this game as special as everyone says it is?
A: There are two things I always reference, just to give people a sense and make it somewhat objective. One, there was a book that came out five years ago called "The 100 Sporting Events You Must See Live," and Army-Navy ranked fifth on their list after only The Masters, the Olympics, the Super Bowl and the World Cup. The other I always reference is (noted sports author and columnist) John Feinstein. He is famous for saying that he's been literally to every sporting event in the world, from Wimbledon to The Masters, Olympics and everything else. He said, "If you ask me one event to go to in a given year or given day, it's Army-Navy." I think it speaks to the passion, the emotion that's in the stadium. You think about how everybody's connected in some way, either by serving in the military or having a connection to the military or attending one of the academies. It's hard to describe, in many ways. And you think about the athletes on the field, and knowing that certainly in the case of the seniors, that in a number of months they're going to be off in harm's way somewhere and this might very well be their last organized football game to ever play in. And you hear at the academies that every meal is prefaced with "Beat Army" or "Beat Navy." It just runs so deep, and there's so much pomp and circumstance of the day: the march on, seeing all the students enter the stadium, and then the skydivers and fly over. And then the alma maters at the end of the game, when everybody stays in their seats and the stadium just goes completely silent, and first they go over and sing the alma mater for the losing team and then the winning team. And you can hear a pin drop, except for the people singing. The videos from military bases around the world who are saying "Go Army" or "Go Navy." There are just lots of goose bump moments. It really can't be replicated by any other event."