Believe it or not (because I’m a dork), I had been thinking over the past few weeks that a neutral site game at Soldier Field between Illinois and Northwestern would be a very positive option for the U of I football program when the Big Ten moves its final regular season games to Thanksgiving weekend starting next season (as opposed to the traditional slot of the week prior to Thanksgiving). The main issue is that Illinois hosts the state high school football championships every year on Thanksgiving weekend at Memorial Stadium, which is an event that the athletic department doesn’t want to give up since it amounts to a campus visit to Champaign for many top in-state recruits without having to count against NCAA recruiting limits. As a result, a great way to solve this problem is to move the Illinois-Northwestern game to a neutral site in Chicago. The majority of Illinois students live in the Chicago area and are more likely to be home than down on campus in the first place, while also providing the school’s Chicagoland alumni an opportunity to watch the team close by every year.
Lo and behold, the front page of Saturday’s Chicago Tribune sports section splashed an article of Northwestern’s investigation of moving a game against Illinois to Wrigley Field on the heels of the success of the NHL Winter Classic. Wrigley Field actually has a whole lot more football history than hockey as the long-time former home of the Bears from the franchise’s first season in Chicago in 1921 until 1970. (On a side note, an oft-forgotten part of Chicago sports history was on prominent display this past weekend with the Arizona Cardinals reaching the Super Bowl, which brought up a multitude of references to the franchise’s last NFL championship in 1947 as a Chicago-based team that played at old Comiskey Park. With the Bears having been the clear #1 team in Chicago in terms of year-in year-out fan support for quite awhile, as alluded to in this great commercial, it’s easy to forget that the old-time football fans in town lived through a time when the Bears-Cardinals rivalry mirrored the Cubs-White Sox split between the North and South Sides of the city.)
It turns out that this is purely a proposal by Northwestern to move a home game from Ryan Field at this point and it has been confirmed that the Evanston school doesn’t need the permission of Illinois to move forward. Seeing that Illinois wouldn’t be giving up a home game in Champaign, there would likely be an incredible amount of national press coverage by playing at Wrigley, and this would likely turn what is already a “mild” road game (since the Illini usually bring a large contingent of fans to Evanston when they play there) into a neutral site game or even a real home field advantage (considering that I felt like I was back on Green Street with the number of people I ran into in Wrigleyville every weekend for the first couple of years that I was out of college), this is a fantastic opportunity for the program without having any risk.
There are a few items that would need to be cleared if Illinois were ever to agree to a permanent annual neutral site game in Chicago as opposed to just a one-time deal, though. First and foremost, above all else, and most importantly (I can’t throw in enough emphasis on this point), the Illinois football program MUST have seven home games in Champaign every year before it should consider any type of neutral site game. Seven home games is now the standard for any BCS program that wants to maximize its revenue and even more imperative for Illinois, which has just finished a massive renovation of Memorial Stadium. Of course, Ron Guenther appeared to forget about this when he agreed to the series against Missouri at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis while at the same time scheduling home-and-home series against non-BCS teams. The St. Louis games have been fine to get the border rivalry on the radar on the football side, but after a few years into the series, the neutral location is best left to the basketball side alone with the Braggin’ Rights Game. (From a financial perspective, giving up a home basketball game has nowhere near the same impact as moving a home football game, while the Illinois-Mizzou basketball tilt is engrained as a St. Louis holiday tradition in a way that the football game probably never will be.) Missouri would be great to keep on the schedule, yet it should be home-and-home. The non-conference schedule after that should be filled out with three body bag home games against an assortment of MAC and Division I-AA opponents. This is the modus operandi of essentially every power program in the country (one marquee non-conference game and then three home games against non-BCS opponents), so it would be in the best interests of Illinois to follow suit to keep up with its peers (or, more to the point, the programs that we aspire to be considered peers with).
Now, it could be argued that the Mizzou game could be kept in St. Louis with three non-conference body bag home games while the Northwestern series would continue home-and-home as it has for a century. However, it would seem to me that it would be much more important for Illinois to have an annual presence in the Chicago market over St. Louis for numerous reasons. I’ve already noted that the majority of U of I students and alums live in Chicagoland and even more significant is the fact that securing a place as the virtual home team in the nation’s third largest media market for marketing and recruiting purposes ought to be a no-brainer priority over the much smaller St. Louis market if it comes down to a choice between one or the other.
Finally, a one-time game at Wrigley Field is perfectly fine as a novelty for press coverage. However, in order for an annual game in Chicago to be financially viable for Illinois, it must be played at Soldier Field. For Northwestern, moving a game from Ryan Field (47,130 capacity), where the Wildcats almost never sell-out, to Wrigley Field (41,118 capacity), which would be a guaranteed sell-out and a premium could be charged for tickets, would likely be a net economic gain for that program. Illinois, on the other hand, sold out Memorial Stadium (62,870 capacity) for all four of its Big Ten games last season, which means that the amount that we would get from splitting the gate at Wrigley (i.e. the equivalent of revenue from only around 20,000 seats) would not make any economic sense. At least Soldier Field (61,500 capacity) would provide enough seats to make a neutral site move financially feasible from the Illini perspective.
Let me be clear once again – I absolutely DO NOT advocate Illinois having less than seven home games in Champaign. As long as there’s seven home games, though, then playing neutral site games in Chicago on top of that makes a lot of sense.
(Image from Stadiums of the NFL)