Monday, July 27, 2009

Some Thoughts on NU Playing Football at Wrigley Field

The idea of Northwestern playing a football game at Wrigley Field has been a topic since athletic director Jim Phillips floated the idea last fall. Today the Chicago Tribune mentioned that issues regarding player safety and financing need to be resolved before the game becomes a reality. Illinois football coach Ron Zook stated this morning that he was supportive of the idea. My response to that is of course Zook likes the idea, if the game is an NU home game Zook gets the best of both worlds. He gets to play in Chicago where Illinois has a ton of fans, but he doesn’t lose a home game himself. To be honest, I am strongly supportive of NU playing one game at Wrigley Field, but I am strongly opposed to making the Illini the opponent. The reason for my opposition to playing Illinois is more or less the fact that I do think the move would work strongly in their favor. Illinois has more fans in Chicago than any other Big Ten team. Yes, they don’t always show up for games at Ryan Field, but without a doubt a legion of Illini fans would show up for the contest at Wrigley. That would turn the contest into an Illinois home game despite the fact that it was Northwestern who gave up a game in their own home stadium to play a novelty game. Also, I want to point out that right now NU’s 2010 schedule actually only features five home games. Yes, NU only has 11 scheduled games so odds are that the 12th game will be played at home, but playing Illinois means that NU would basically play only 5 home games in 2010. That would put NU at a huge competitive disadvantage compared to the rest of the Big Ten and all BCS conference football teams.

As far as I can tell, the goal Jim Phillips has for a Wrigley Field game is to get some fans to take notice of the Northwestern program and then travel to Ryan Field for a game. That could happen. If folks who haven’t ever been to an NU game do travel to Ryan Field I think they would be pleased with the experience. However, if the opponent for the game at Wrigley is Illinois then the effort to achieve this goal is meaningless. Illinois vs Northwestern will sell out at Wrigley, that’s a guarantee you can’t make with another opponent. The problem is that all 40,000 fans will be either NU fans that come to home games at Ryan Field anyway or Illini fans who aren’t going to magically become NU fans just because of a game played at Wrigley. If Northwestern plays a non-conference opponent, such as Rice in 2011, the fact is attendance will likely be lower. I do not, however, think it will be dramatically lower. Some Chicago sports fans will attend the game for the curiosity of seeing football at Wrigley Field. These are the types of fans that I believe Northwestern needs to lure to Evanston. NU can use such a game to market their program to these people by giving them season ticket information. I really believe there are enough sports fans in Chicago to increase the regular attendance at Ryan Field. People just need to realize how great an entertainment value Northwestern football has compared with many of Chicago’s pro sports. If people realize this I believe attendance can increase. However, Illinois fans aren’t going to lineup to buy Wildcat season tickets no matter where a game is played. If we’re going to play at Wrigley, let’s play a team that allows casual Chicago sports fans to attend the game and fall in love with the play of Coach Fitz’s Wildcats.


Philip Rossman-Reich said...

Agreed. NU has enough problems drawing a home crowd in the Big Ten at Ryan Field. While the novelty would be nice, playing Illinois would make it seem like it was Illinois' idea even if NU is the home team. That is certainly not Jim Phillips' goal.

Either way, NU has to make sure this game is played when students are on campus and make sure students can get to this game. They may not pay for the ticket, but a strong student section and strong student support is the building block for any good college fan base.

Dave said...

For NU to do this, they'd better sell it out, or it will actually have a negative impact, based on the appearance of NU not being able to pull its weight. Here are some questions we can ask, and maybe answer to figure out what they're thinking.

1) What is capacity at Wrigley for football? What is the capacity at Ryan Field?
2) What is the typical ratio of NU:visitor attendance for a home nonconference game?
3) What is the typical ratio of NU:visitor attendance for a home conference game?
4) What other weird token location games are there? How do they approach this? (You can't convince me an Army-Notre Dame game at Yankee stadium (a) won't have more ND fans and (b) would hurt Army. Of course, it would be organized by ND (right?), so it's not an exactly similar situation.)

I'm too lazy to look these answers up.

I agree with your points concerning Illinois, but I think the same argument holds for Iowa, Wisconsin, Purdue, in terms of local fan base. Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan would bring in their legions, even if they're not close and local. Michigan State and Minnesota would have strong followings, too. It seems like the ideal Big Ten team to schedule here might be Indiana from the standpoint of yeah, they'll bring in fans, but not TOO too many, right?

Another option would be to schedule a strong, outside of some distant radius opponent that would bring fans, but not too many. A Big 12 school like Missouri? I don't know.

Lots and lots of logistical hurdles for this. The advantage of Illinois is that they're a school that might actually want to do this and allow it to happen.

Ryan said... ask some great questions. I think those really are the questions NU's athletic department needs to think about. I do know that past token location games which featured NIU hosting Iowa at Solider Field and Indiana hosting Penn State at the RCA Dome featured more visiting fans, so that trend isn't one I'm in love with. The fact is, though, based on the story that the Cubs took Ron Zook on a tour of Wrigley it seems that if this game happens NU intends for Illinois to be the team they play.