By Adam Hoge-
CHICAGO (CBS) — When Northern Illinois and Wisconsin announced they would play a game at Soldier Field Sept. 17, you couldn’t fault either school for expecting a sellout.
After all, when NIU played Iowa at Soldier Field in 2007, a sellout was announced seven weeks before kickoff. Considering Madison, Wis. is closer to Chicago than Iowa City, Iowa, a second sellout seemed like a no-brainer.
Not so fast.
Surprisingly, a sellout appears unlikely. As of last week, only 33,000 tickets had been distributed, according to NIU officials. Soldier Field, of course, has a capacity of 61,500.
What makes this so surprising is that Wisconsin fans traditionally travel well. Thousands of fans descended on Las Vegas a year ago for a season-opener at UNLV and Badger fans filled up at least two-thirds of the Rose Bowl last January against TCU with an announced attendance of 94,118.
Chicago might not have the allure of Las Vegas or the Rose Bowl, but considering Wisconsin’s strong alumni base in the city and the short driving distance from Madison — not to mention the game will not be broadcast on television — one would think a sellout would be easy.
So what’s the problem?
Beyond the obvious economical issues — tickets are expensive — another might be how the contract is structured. When NIU and Iowa played at Soldier Field in 2007, the Huskies got the first $1 million and the Hawkeyes got the second $1 million, meaning Iowa had a lot of motivation to sell tickets. The contract with Wisconsin, which was renegotiated after fears that UW would buy out the contract, gives the Badgers the first $1 million. Thus, other than selling out its allotment of tickets, Wisconsin doesn’t have any motivation to fill more seats.
Surprisingly, according to UW officials, the Badgers had only sold 11,000 of its 12,500 ticket allotment as of last Friday, further emphasizing the fan base’s lack of interest in the game. The contract states that all unused tickets by the visiting team had to be returned to Ticketmaster no later than three Mondays before the game and that date has already passed.
So why aren’t Badger fans scooping up tickets for an easy road trip?
Other than the lack of marketing of the game in Wisconsin, tickets are expensive. There are three non-student ticket prices on Ticketmaster: $88, $73 and $58. Those prices also don’t include Ticketmaster fees around $13. To put those numbers in comparison, the 2007 game between NIU and Iowa featured only two non-student ticket prices with the better seats going for $55.50 and the rest of them going for $44.40. It’s unclear what the additional fees were in 2007. According to the game contract, ticket prices were set by the home institution.
Unfortunately for the Huskies, its their profits that are going to be affected.
NIU Athletic Director Jeff Compher told The Daily Chronicle back in June that the first $1 million had already been raised to pay Wisconsin, leaving NIU with the rest of the revenue. Unfortunately, because the field is run by SMG, all profits from concessions, souvenirs, parking and suites goes to SMG and not the Huskies. Still, considering the increased ticket prices and capacity greater than the 24,000 at Huskie Stadium, NIU figures to come out with a greater profit than if the game was being played in DeKalb, Ill.
Will that profit compare to the $1 million the Huskies received in 2007 when they played in front of a sellout crowd at Soldier Field against Iowa? The simple math says no, but we’ll have to see what the final attendance numbers indicate. A last-minute push for tickets is still possible, especially because the game is not on television.
In the meantime, NIU isn’t hesitating to return to Soldier Field… against the Hawkeyes of course. The two schools are set to open the 2012 season against each other on the Chicago lakefront.
Adam is the Sports Content Producer for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.