By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) The Big Ten Championship Game isn’t a very big deal.
Not in Indianapolis, at least.
So, how about bringing the thing to Chicago instead?
This past Saturday night, the announced attendance at Lucas Oil Stadium for the Big Ten’s title tilt between Wisconsin and Nebraska was 41,620. That meager number was nearly 23,000 fans smaller than the announced crowd of 64,152 at last year’s game in Indy – or about the equivalency of an Illinois football home game this season.
Last December, I attended the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game at Lucas Oil, and can tell you that although more than 64,000 fans were announced, there weren’t nearly that many actual people in the stands. As a result, in a column following the 2011 contest, I offered up a proposal to Big Ten commish Jim Delany, writing that “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.”
Well, the attendance certainly didn’t improve markedly this past weekend. Rather, it sunk startlingly. And that was even with a matchup that featured the University of Nebraska, whose fans are known for generally traveling like locusts. I consider this past weekend’s shrunken crowd and shriveled ticket demand a clear-cut sign that Indy shouldn’t claim exclusive rights to the Big Ten Championship Game.
And that, just like with the Big Ten Basketball Tournament, Chicago should get its shot at hosting the event, as well.
Currently, the Big Ten is locked in to a contract with Lucas Oil Stadium that ensures the conference championship game will be played there through 2015. Indianapolis, to be sure, 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 some serious shortcomings.
Most significantly, the Chicagoland metro area boasts 9.4 million people, including more than 300,000 Big Ten alumni. The Indianapolis 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 Big Ten schools – who don’t have to drive several hours to get to the ballgame.
Additionally, that lengthy drive to Indy from various Big Ten outposts, coupled with the cost of a hotel room, is a big factor, particularly with many fans looking to pinch pennies – especially around the holidays.
I’ve long been skeptical of Big Ten fans’ actual 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 Cornhuskers and Badgers fans this past weekend were content to watch the Big Ten title game on TV at home and instead save their money 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. Beyond that, with the lights of State Street and Michigan Avenue, ice-skating in Millennium Park and various seasonal shows in the theater district, there are simply a lot more festive reasons to spend a weekend in Windy City during the holidays than there is to road-trip to Indy.
The indoor, temperature-controlled confines of Lucas Oil Stadium, of course, provide a guaranteed warm setting for fans and players. Soldier Field, on the other hand, could produce chilly game conditions along Chicago’s lakefront in early December.
That wasn’t the case this past weekend when the temps soared well into the 60s . Outdoor football wouldn’t have just been tolerable at Soldier Field on Saturday night. Rather, it would have been downright pleasant.
That wouldn’t always be the case, but, unlike many other conferences across the country, the Big Ten’s reputation is partly built on playing its late-season games in potentially inclement elements. It would be interesting to also see the league’s title game occasionally played outdoors in lockstep with that bare-knuckled Big Ten identity.
Come 2016, I hope we get our chance. And that we see Soldier Field filled to the brim with fans for a Big Ten title game instead of again watching a backdrop of empty seats inside Lucas Oil Stadium.
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.