- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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When Indianapolis and Chicago made bids to host the first set of Big Ten football championship games, Indy won in a landslide, as the Big Ten awarded it the title game through 2015.
A first-rate indoor facility (Lucas Oil Stadium) surrounded by restaurants and hotels certainly helped Indianapolis, but the Indiana Sports Corp -- the city's sports promotional and organizing arm -- put it over the top. Not only is Indiana Sports Corp the nation's first sports commission (founded in 1979), it's also one of the best, bringing events like the Super Bowl, the Final Four and the Olympic Trials to Naptown.
Marketing matters and so does logistics, and Chicago fell well short of Indy in those areas. But things are changing.
Chicago launched its own sports commission in 2011. It's part of Choose Chicago, the city's official tourism organization. Don Welsh, the president and CEO of Choose Chicago, previously had led the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association, which works directly with Indiana Sports Corp., and had held a similar post in Seattle, working with the Seattle Sports Association to bring major events to the Emerald City.
"He called and said, 'Where's your sports commission person?'" said Sam Stark, the executive director of the Chicago Sports Commission. "And people were like, 'We don't have a sports commission person.' So he said, 'Well, we will soon.' It's a big niche, and he wanted to make sure Chicago is at the table."
That person turned out to be Stark, who had previously served as president and CEO of the Central Florida sports commission in Orlando. Advisory board members for the Chicago Sports Commission include Chicago Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, Chicago Bulls executive vice president Steve Schanwald and several marketing chiefs of pro teams in the city.
The Chicago Sports Commission is partnering with the Big Ten for the league's upcoming men's basketball tournament at the United Center. Along with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the commission on Monday announced a series of events to be held in conjunction with the tournament, including a fan fest downtown at Daley Plaza, a tip-off luncheon and a VIP/alumni party. Chicago didn't have these events in the past, which hurt when the Big Ten moved the basketball tournament to Indianapolis in 2006. Indy and Chicago are co-hosting the event through 2015.
Indianapolis will host the football championship for at least another three seasons, but Stark would love to bring the event to Chicago in 2016.
"Just the synergy between the Big Ten and Chicago warrants a discussion about the event," Stark told ESPN.com. "The amount of alumni here in this market, it's an event that we need to look at. We'll first talk to the folks at [Soldier Field Management] and the Bears, and get their interest level. But on the surface, it certainly seems like an event that has a place in Chicago."
The bid process for the next set of football title games is at least a year away, and Stark hopes the upcoming basketball tournament will help his group formulate what works and what doesn't. The Chicago commission is working closely with the Big Ten and local Big Ten alumni groups leading up to next month's event.
"This is our first effort as a sports commission to welcome in the Big Ten in a way that hasn't happened before," he said. "This will allow us to sit down with them afterward and get feedback. This will really be the starter on those kinds of discussions."
One big difference between Chicago and Indy is the lack of an indoor facility, where many league title games are played. Weather can be a factor on the first Saturday of December, when the league title game will be held. But as many Big Ten fans have pointed out, it's part of the league's football fabric.
"Every school plays outdoors," Stark said, "so one week later, they can't play one more game outdoors? It's doable."
Attendance has been a challenge in Indianapolis for the first two Big Ten football championships -- last year's event drew only 41,260 -- and also for some recent basketball tournaments. Chicago could have an easier time there because there are so many more Big Ten fans in the area. A bigger obstacle for the city could be logistics, as Soldier Field isn't nearly as centralized as Lucas Oil Stadium.
But Stark is confident his group can "shrink Chicago."
"It's a different footprint, and that's fine," Stark said. "But with good planning and with good logistics, transportation and other elements, it's a very manageable city. That's been the bogeyman of Chicago, 'Aw, it's too big, the parking ...' It's really not.
"Once you have a group that's focused and dedicated on those things, you'll see we'll have a city that helps the fans, the athletes, the media, everybody."
Chicago has that group, and it should give Indy some real competition when the bidding process comes around again.
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