Traveling together and safely spaced, a highway convoy of 95 buses carrying thousands of cadets and midshipmen to Gillette Stadium for Saturday’s Army-Navy game would stretch for more than 5 miles.
A list of logistics, ceremonial trappings, and legwork that went into bringing the two-day annual extravaganza to New England for the first time is almost as long.
And that’s only partly why “a lot of people will tell you that this Army-Navy game is like hosting a Super Bowl, it’s at that magnitude, certainly, at the college level,” said Phil Buttafuoco, executive director of special events for the Kraft Group.
The event is expected to generate revenues of approximately $30 million for the region, according to Meet Boston.
Hotels from Providence to Boston are sold out.
An estimated 50,000-plus attendees headed for the sold-out, 65,878-capacity stadium in Foxborough are coming from out of state, with tickets purchased from all 50 states and a few other countries.
“Ticket demand for this game is greater than any AFC Championship game, greater than Taylor Swift, greater than anybody else we’ve ever seen,” said Jonathan Kraft, president of the Kraft Group.
The spectacle begins with Friday’s friendly strength and endurance “Patriot Games” competition between the service academies at assorted historic sites in Boston. The final round will be held at the stadium Saturday at noon, three hours before the game kicks off.
Parking lots around Gillette will open extra early to allow for enough tailgating time before catching other pregame hoopla, including the parade march of each academy’s 4,400-strong contingent of students into the stadium, plus flyovers from each branch of the rivalry.
Buttafuoco said the event “costs a lot more than a Patriots game,” plus, “the majority of the ticket revenue is kept by the academies.”
The benefits count for much more.
“We’re not hosting this event necessarily to generate revenue as much as it’s a great opportunity to allow New England to shine by hosting ‘America’s Game,’ ” Buttafuoco said. “It’s about bringing the game ‘home.’ ”
Selling that message to the respective schools has been the central task of the organizers, and particularly the Kraft family, since early last decade.
In a private meeting in his office with Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk, Patriots owner Robert Kraft showed off mementoes from Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones, Bono of U2, and the Dalai Lama.
Gladchuk recalled what Kraft said was missing: “But Chet, we’ve never hosted the Army-Navy game. We’ve got to find a way to make this happen.”
What happened was that after the Kraft Group started looking into bidding for the game in 2012, it decided that it was not ready, that it still needed to learn more about what it took to host the event. When the 2017 request for proposals went out, the Kraft Group’s bid was not accepted.
Undeterred, Buttafuoco went on a learning mission with Gladchuk in August of 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2021.
“I used to go down to meet Chet every year at Gurney’s [Newport Harbor Island Resort] and sit on the pool patio and have a non-alcoholic drink with him and chat about the Army-Navy game,” said Buttafuoco. “It was really part of the overall learning and listening so that we could build our program off of what we’re learning and the research.”
With only a couple of exceptions, organizing committee meetings with the Kraft Group, alumni associations from West Point and Annapolis, Meet Boston, and Go Providence, the Mass. Office of Travel and Tourism, and the City of Boston have been occurring on a monthly basis since 2017.
The group did its research, focusing on “using the mantra ‘bring the game home,’ ” said Buttafuoco. Not just presenting factoids such as Braintree’s Thayer Academy founder Sylvanus Thayer being the founder of West Point, but also with historical markers such as the US Army and National Guard being founded in New England, plus the first movements of the US Navy occurring here.
Similar to building a court case, the group used the evidence to convince the schools to look outside their comfort zone of playing in Philadelphia, which sits roughly halfway between West Point, N.Y., and Annapolis, Md.
“At the end of the day, we had to convince the Naval Academy to drive past Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York to bring the game here to New England, so we had to [be] better than those four cities specifically to justify hosting it here in New England,” said Buttafuoco.
The other selling point was demonstrating that New England had the demand and the infrastructure to successfully mount the production. With 900,000 veterans living in New England (300,000 in Massachusetts), 53,000 people in Massachusetts working in the defense industry, another 26,000 holding jobs indirectly related to the defense industry, and the defense industry receiving $1 billion-plus annually from the US Department of Defense, there would be no problem raising awareness for the game.
That the region has plenty of sports fans is no secret.
Everything combined to lead to the call last June announcing the game was coming to Gillette.
“Ultimately, they awarded the game to us because they were extremely comfortable with the plan that we put in place,” said Buttafuoco. “The rationale that we were expressing to them about why bring the game here to New England really resonated with them.”
After Saturday’s game, when the cadets and midshipmen trickle out of the stadium — half elated, the other half not — and onto their buses, preparations for next December’s game in Washington, D.C., will begin to ramp up.
Buttafuoco and his team will be hoping this wasn’t a one-off.
“We certainly hope that when people leave next week that they will say, ‘We had a great experience in New England and we would love for the game to come back,’ that would be the ultimate compliment,” said Buttafuoco. “And should fans have that experience and the academies have that experience, we do hope that we would somehow get future games or be on a rotation going forward.”
Michael Silverman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.