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Monday, January 19, 2009
Phillips pushes for Northwestern game at Wrigley

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Quite possibly the toughest part of Jim Phillips' job is finding ways to boost attendance at Northwestern home football games.

Despite having the Big Ten's smallest stadium and a competitive team since 1995, Northwestern repeatedly struggles to fill Ryan Field and often needs fans of opposing teams to sell out its 47,130-seat venue. A small and scattered alumni base certainly contributes to Northwestern's quandary, but the university also hasn't effectively connected with Chicago sports fans who choose to spend their dollars elsewhere.

Phillips, the enterprising first-year athletic director at Northwestern, might have found one way to bridge the gap.

He wants to schedule a Big Ten game at Wrigley Field in the coming years, possibly against in-state rival Illinois.

"We are continuing a dialogue with Illinois," Phillips said. "Within the next month or so, we'll decide if it's something that can work. There are a lot of moving parts, but it's something I will pursue aggressively."

Illinois doesn't sound too jazzed about the idea right now, but that certainly could change when more details are ironed out. Obviously, the Illini don't want to lose a valuable home game, especially since they play Missouri every year at a neutral site (St. Louis).

For this to work, Northwestern likely will have to give up one of its home games. But think what the program could gain in the process.

Chicago sports fans would be excited to see football in Wrigley Field, which hosted the NFL's Bears until the end of the 1970 season before becoming almost exclusively a baseball venue.

The NHL's Winter Classic game on New Year's Day at Wrigley generated an insane amount of buzz in the city. Though November football doesn't have the novelty of an outdoor hockey game, it still could pique the interest of fans who otherwise would never attend a Northwestern home game. Perhaps after seeing a game at Wrigley, they would be more inclined to attend others in Evanston.

A game against Illinois makes sense for obvious reasons, but if the Illini are hesitant, Phillips should look elsewhere. Almost every Big Ten team has a sizable alumni base in Chicago and likely would love to play a historic game on the North Side of the city.

While AD at Northern Illinois, Phillips orchestrated a game against Iowa at Chicago's Soldier Field to kick off the 2007 season. I remember him saying at a news conference that his hand trembled while signing the contract for the game, which isn't cheap to rent out.

A game at Wrigley Field also could present some obstacles, but the payoff for Northwestern -- capturing casual sports fans in Chicago -- could be huge.