Northern Illinois University’s football team made its fourth appearance in Chicago and first at Guaranteed Rate Field on Wednesday in a game that drew more than 10,000 fans to the South Side ballpark. Visiting Toledo rallied for a 31-24 Mid-American Conference victory. While a disappointing outcome, the first major football game on Chicago’s South Side in six decades marked NIU’s reentry into the Chicago market as well as the start of a potential new revenue stream for the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, the state agency that owns the ballpark which opened in 1991 (Photos by Jack McCarthy / Chronicle Media)
Sean Frazier marveled at last Wednesday’s transformation of Guaranteed Rate Field into a Northern Illinois University football venue and sounded like he’d welcome a return trip.
“Absolutely,” said Frazier, NIU’s athletic director, as he
stood near what is usually home plate. “We want to come back. … This has been a phenomenal experience for us.”
The Huskies played for the first time at the home of the Chicago White Sox — their fourth overall appearance in Chicago — in front of just over 10,000 fans on a pleasant fall night.
Visiting Toledo rallied in the second half for a 31-24 victory in the inaugural Chi-Town Showdown. Kareem Hunt scored with 1:15 left to give the Rockets (8-2) the go-ahead score as they rallied from an 11-point deficit to beat the Huskies for the first time since 2009.
“I couldn’t be happier with the venue, how it was done,” NIU coach Rod Carey told reporters after the
game. “I thought it was a decent turnout, I was hoping for more. Certainly happy with the event, in spite of the loss.”
While a disappointing outcome, the first major football game on Chicago’s South Side in six decades could be a winner for both the university and state taxpayers.
It marked NIU’s reentry into the Chicago market as well as a potential new revenue stream for the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, the state agency the owns the 40,615-seat venue.
The Illinois Sports Facilities Authority officials were not available for comment on Wednesday, but Crain’s Chicago Business reported recently that the deal with
NIU called for the agency to keep all parking and concessions revenue and split ticket proceeds above $500,000.
The report said the authority projected attendance between 15,000 to 25,000 people.
The midweek crowd didn’t hit those hoped-for figures and NIU’s now 3-7 overall record could have contributed. But the numbers were in line with Northern Illinois’ 2016 average attendance, hovering around 11,000 in five other home games this season in DeKalb.
The last “home” game against Toledo, also a midweek affair, drew around 8,400 fans to Huskies Stadium on
Nov. 11, 2014.
Still, the Chicago game allowed the Huskies to stake their claim in a city and metropolitan region that’s home to an estimated 120,000 living NIU alumni.
“Nobody owns the Chicago media market,” Frazier said. “They have a slice. It’s a pro town. (But) this gives up a chance to display our tradition-based program.”
The Chicago area is home for Northwestern University and the University of Illinois, which has a large alumni base and played the Wildcats at Soldier Field last year, plans a 2018 match with South Florida on the lakefront.
Last Wednesday’s NIU-Toledo game was televised
nationally on ESPN2, drew considerable media attention with pre-game interest from Chicago TV stations plus a nearly full press box.
“We got our money’s worth with attention,” an NIU spokesperson said.
The football game was the first at the park since it opened in 1991 and apparently the first since the former Chicago Cardinals played their final National Football League game at old Comiskey Park in 1959.
Northern Illinois has hosted home games at Chicago’s Soldier Field featuring Iowa (2007 and 2012) and Wisconsin (2011).
For the facilities authority, it was the second non-baseball event this season as it seeks to extend use the stadium (formerly U.S. Cellular Field) beyond Chicago White Sox games. Wrigley Field has offered concerts with big name artists for a number of years and even had an international soccer match a few years ago.
For the state’s facilities authority, this year’s first steps into non-baseball use came on Sept. 24 with an all-day music festival featuring Chance the Rapper and his Magnificent Coloring Day tour.
More than six weeks later, the first non-baseball sporting event was a bit more complicated.
“The White Sox and Illinois Sports Facilities Authority pledged their complete support for the effort, delaying many traditional end-of-season activities at the stadium,” Frazier said. “Even legendary White Sox groundskeeper Roger Bossard was up to the challenge of turning the dirt infield, pitcher’s mound and warning track into one smooth grass football field.”
The field, reshaped by Bossard and his crew, was in excellent condition and showed little evidence of previous baseball use.
One end zone extended to right field and already had padding to protect players. The other end zone ended at the home team dugout and a protective barrier with padding was erected.
That allowed the teams to use the entire field unencumbered by hazards, unlike a short field situation in 2010 when Northwestern hosted Illinois at Wrigley Field and teams could only use one end zone along the third base line.
“Initially we looked at going straight out to center field to use both sides of the stadium a little bit more,” said John Cheney, NIU senior associate athletic director for facilities and operations. “But the distances and corners of the end zones ended up in the dugouts based on that layout.”
Most fans at last Wednesday’s game sat along the first base line or facing the north end zone while some fans were also scattered in outfield seats.
Guaranteed Rate Field was previously known as U.S. Cellular Field under a former naming rights agreement. It opened as Comiskey Park in 1991, carrying over the name from the old venue located to the north across 35th Street.
Midweek games have been a common for Northern Illinois and other Mid-American Conference teams since 1999. Those games attract national broadcasts on ESPN but the venues are typically home fields and not an unusual site like NIU offered last week.
“We might take a look at a weekend game the next time, switch it up a little bit,” Frazier said.