Big Ten: Soldier Field

Video: Washington-Illinois preview

September, 13, 2013
9/13/13
6:15
PM ET

Illinois needs a fast start, big plays on offense and a bend-but-don't-break defense to upset Washington at Soldier Field in Chicago.
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."

[+] EnlargeLucas Oil Stadium
AP Photo/David StlukaA crowd of just over 41,000 watched the 2012 Big Ten title game in Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium. Would a title game in Chicago pack the seats?
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.
The Big Ten championship game is headed to Naptown for the foreseeable future. Bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett break down the league's decision to play its signature event in Indianapolis from 2011-15.

Adam Rittenberg: I know you're behind this, Bennett. You wanted the shorter drive up I-65 to Indianapolis every December. One day on the blog and you're already making demands. I see how you roll.

Seriously, it's notable that the Big Ten has committed to Indy for the first five years of its new signature event. The league had two good options in Lucas Oil Stadium and Soldier Field, and ultimately made the safer and possibly smarter choice with Indy. Lucas Oil is a first-rate facility and won't provide the logistical headaches of an outdoor venue.

What was your initial take on the Big Ten's announcement?

[+] EnlargeLucas Oil Stadium
AP Photo/Tom StricklandThe Big Ten championship game will be played in Lucas Oil Stadium from 2011-15.
Brian Bennett: That's right, Adam. Jim Delany is already throwing flowers at my feet to make my transition as smooth as possible. Smart move.

Getting back to reality, my reaction to the league choosing Indy was this: It's perfectly understandable, totally defensible on every level and yet just a bit ... uninspiring. That's no knock on Indianapolis -- anyone who's attended a Final Four or another big event there knows how well that city pulls those things off and how convenient everything is downtown for the fan experience. I certainly can't tell fans they should sit outside instead of indoors when I'll be snugly nestled in a warm press box regardless.

Still, as someone who until this point has viewed the league from afar, I've always associated the Big Ten with rugged football played outdoors, not on turf in a dome. I think of Chicago as the center of the Big Ten spoke, not Indianapolis. I see Chicago like the Big East sees New York for its basketball tournament: the league mecca.

But I'm the new guy here. What do you think?

Rittenberg: Brian, I totally agree about Chicago, and I'm not just saying that because I live here. Chicago is the epicenter of Big Ten interest, as almost every league member, including Nebraska, boasts a significant base of fans/alums.

It comes down to whether the Big Ten wants the championship game to be a true reflection of its brand or a mostly stress-free tune-up for bigger and better things. Cold weather is an integral part of Big Ten football, plain and simple. But if you want the title game to simulate what teams will face in BCS bowls and in the national title game, Indianapolis makes more sense because they'll never play a national championship at a cold-weather venue. And, as you write, Indianapolis has the track record of being able to host successful major events.

I guess I was a little surprised that Delany mentioned "brand" as one of the elements where the Big Ten benefits by going to Indy. As you write, the Big East basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden is a tremendous brand. It should never move from MSG. And while playing outside is a different deal, a championship at Soldier Field could have provided a tremendous branding opportunity for the Big Ten.

As Delany said, this was a conservative move for a new event. It makes sense.

What do you think happens down the road? Do you think Soldier Field will ever host this event? What about other venues like Cleveland Browns Stadium and Ford Field?

Bennett: I got the sense from Delany's comments on Sunday that he wants Chicago eventually to be the home of the Big Ten title game, but that the city has some questions to answer first.

You and I were there at the Palmer House when both Indianapolis and Chicago made their pitches to the league, and Indy brought Gov. Mitch Daniels, Colts president Bill Polian and Clark Kellogg as part of its contingent. Chicago didn't break out any heavy hitters. While Delany said that wouldn't necessarily have made a difference, Chicago clearly didn't have the all-out, integrated effort that Indianapolis brought. And Soldier Field's choppy turf may have to be addressed in the future.

Ultimately, I think Chicago will get a crack at it somewhere down the road, even if it's part of a rotation. Moving around the title game may have hurt the ACC, but the Big Ten will get a huge crowd no matter where it's located. I don't see Cleveland or Detroit or even Minneapolis or Green Bay getting the game anytime soon; Delany has made it pretty clear that Indy and Chicago are the two horses in this race.

[+] EnlargeSoldier Field
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastChicago's Soldier Field was a candidate to host the Big Ten championship game.
Hey, maybe by 2016, global warming will ensure that Chicago is balmy in the first week of December. If not, do you think Indianapolis can become the Big Ten's version of Atlanta for the SEC title game? And won't a prime-time Big Ten championship game be super awesome (technical term) regardless of the site?

Rittenberg: Hey, I wouldn't complain about a balmy December around here. Or a balmy May, for that matter.

Indianapolis has an opportunity to make it very difficult for the Big Ten title game to leave its city limits. I have little doubt this will be an extremely successful event, on par with the SEC championship game, especially if there are national-title implications. Having the game in prime time is a must, given the growing popularity of prime-time college football in the past five years. If Indianapolis can successfully run the event and enhance it during the five-year span, it will be tough for the Big Ten to consider a move. This can truly be a main event in Indy, while I'm not sure Chicago can offer the same type of top billing.

Still, I'd be surprised if this event remains in one city for, say, 10 years. Chicago seems like the next option after Indianapolis, but the Soldier Field folks should take a cue from the Indiana Sports Corporation in how to present a unified bid for an event like this. Indianapolis' experience in hosting national sporting events certainly came to light during this process. But I agree with you about Delany: A part of him wants this event in Chicago. I even think he'll be proactive in working with the city's parks department and the Soldier Field folks to present a better bid the next time around.

I also would like to see the Big Ten consider seriously other venues after 2015, particularly Cleveland and Detroit. If those groups show that they have what it takes to have the title game, they should be in the mix.

OK, Bennett, you get the last word. What are the biggest keys to long-term success for the Big Ten championship game?

Bennett: Wow, I get a virtual home game until 2015 and the last word in this debate on my first day. It's probably all downhill from here.

I think the formula for success is pretty simple: Good games. We know Indianapolis is going to put on a first-class event and that the fans are going to eat it up. As in any sporting championship, the long-term reputation depends on memorable moments, whether that's a huge upset or two or some down-to-the-wire thrillers. The Big Ten would also like to see its marquee programs like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin and Nebraska make the game as much as possible (and bring their considerable fan bases with them).

The bottom line is you could put this thing in Gary, Ind., or Spokane, Wash., and the odds are it will be a smashing success.

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.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12