By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) During Saturday night’s Big Ten Football Championship Game in Indianapolis, my dad and I sat four rows from the top of massive Lucas Oil Stadium.
But we enjoyed luxury seating.
Yes, as Wisconsin and Michigan State prepared to kick off for their conference’s first-ever football title bout, there were three empty seats to our right and two more to our left. We had no one sitting in the pair of seats directly in front of us, and the four in the row behind us sat fallow, as well.
Not a bad deal for the two of us. But not a great sign for the Big Ten or the city of Indianapolis – no matter how great the Badgers’ 42-39 barnburner of a title game win over the Spartans turned out to be.
(And it was truly great.)
Late in the game on Saturday, the video boards at Lucas Oil declared the game’s attendance to be 64,152 – more than the stadium’s official capacity of 63,000, but nearly 6,000 less than the 70,000 it can be maxed out at for major events.
Either way, the reality was there were far fewer than 64,000 fans at the game, what with a huge swath of rows in Wisconsin’s end zone sitting barren while sizable chunks of empty seats also blotted the 50-yard lines in the lower bowl and the stadium’s upper reaches, as well.
Now, the atmosphere and noise generated by the fans actually in attendance was great, mind you. No complaints there. But, fact is, the Big Ten shouldn’t just be selling out its championship game venue (as Lucas Oil Stadium “officially” was, thanks to brokers), it should be packing the place, as well.
And it wasn’t on Saturday night. Not even close.
In fact, late last week, tickets for the game were available on StubHub for as low as $8.98.
As a result, I offer up this proposal to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany: If game attendance and ticket demand in Indy doesn’t improve markedly the next few years, the Big Ten should bring its football championship to Chicago’s Soldier Field in 2016.
And see how it goes.
Currently, the Big Ten is locked in to a contract with Lucas Oil Stadium that ensures the championship game will be played there through 2015. Indianapolis is a fine sports town with great facilities and a convenient, cozy downtown. But, when compared to Chicago as a Big Ten football hotbed, it also has its shortcomings.
Most significantly, the Chicagoland metro area boasts 9.4 million people, including more than 300,000 Big Ten alumni. Indianapolis’s metro area, meanwhile, has a population of only 1.7 million. That’s an enormous difference in the number of potential ticket buyers – from all schools – who don’t have to drive several hours to get to the ballgame.
And that lengthy drive to Indy, coupled with the cost of a hotel room, is a big factor, particularly these days. I’ve long been skeptical of Big Ten fans’ financial appetite for a championship game considering that people only have so much money to spend. It’s particularly pricey footing the bill for both a trip to the Big Ten championship in cold-weather Indy, as well as a journey to a big-time bowl game in a warm-weather destination.
For most fans, it’s probably an either-or proposition. And I suspect that many Spartans and Badgers fans this past weekend were content to watch the Big Ten title game on TV at home and instead save their pennies for a potential party in Pasadena.
With a conference championship played in Chicago, however, there are far more Big Ten fans living in the immediate area, providing a better chance for a sold-out game – and no need for, you know, “seat fillers,” as the Big Ten was rumored to be hiring this past weekend to pack Lucas Oil (the conference denied it).
Now, the indoor, temperature-controlled confines of Lucas Oil Stadium provided a warm setting for fans – and both teams’ offenses – on Saturday, whereas Soldier Field could produce particularly chilly game conditions along Chicago’s lakefront in early December.
But, unlike many other leagues across the nation, the Big Ten’s reputation is partly built on playing its late-season games in potentially inclement elements. And it would be interesting to see the conference’s title game played outdoors in lockstep with that bare-knuckled identity.
This past weekend, the Big Ten undeniably delivered a slam dunk on the field with its championship-game product, but Indianapolis simply didn’t provide the same for the stands.
And if that doesn’t change, Chicago deserves its own shot.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.