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CHAMPAIGN – The so-called hot rivalry between in-state foes Illinois and Northwestern – felt ever more strongly by the Wildcats than the UI – has never been a tough ticket.
In the last 20 years, 10 Northwestern appearances topped 55,000 in attendance just once at Memorial Stadium. Imagine, the UI's 2001 Big Ten champs closed a seven-game victory run with a disappointing 45,755 on hand against Northwestern. In Evanston, the last 10 home dates with Illinois averaged about 32,000, and it reached that figure only because seven Northwestern teams won six or more games since 2000. Northwestern drew a Top 25 ranking on Nov. 22, 2008, but the game attracted just 32,166 by the lakeshore, many of them Illini fans.
Before getting into the Wrigley Field business, let's look further into the problems of attracting fans at Ryan Field.
– For those who champion the idea of playing Little Sisters of the Poor in order to qualify for a bowl game, consider that Northwestern announced crowds of 17,857 and 19,239 for its 2009 openers with Towson and Eastern Michigan. That reveals how few season-ticket holders the Wildcats have since season ticket numbers are counted whether they attend or not.
– Northwestern's Big Ten opener with Minnesota drew a reported 22,091 although, as everyone knows, not that many actually appeared.
– A spectacular 33-31 defeat of Wisconsin on Nov. 21, marking the 17th win by the Wildcats in two seasons, attracted 32,150, many of them wearing Badger red.
These meager numbers set Jim Phillips to thinking. The innovative Northwestern athletic director saw the excitement when Wrigley hosted the NHL Winter Classic, and a light bulb flashed in his brain. Why not Illinois-Northwestern? A one-time shot with no strings attached.
Great, great idea. For Northwestern! But, for Illini Nation, there are strings. While many Illinoisans saw this initially as an opportunity to fill Wrigley with orange – like they do at Welsh-Ryan Arena for basketball – it turns out that the vast majority of UI fans have no idea how they'll acquire football tickets.
Here's the way it works in what is expected to be a 42,000-seat setting. Northwestern gets more than 30,000 tickets, and Illinois receives its regular Big Ten road allotment of 3,000. The rest, as part of the agreement, are retained by the Chicago Cubs for their season-ticket holders. Phillips, seeing this as a grand opportunity to boost season-ticket sales, decreed that the Wrigley ticket be sold separately – at prices of $50, $75, $100, $125 and $150 – and his 30,000 can only be obtained by those who have Northwestern season tickets (which go between $82 and $164 for five home games).
Oh, he'll set aside a section for Northwestern students in August. And he'll allow season-ticket holders to apply for extra tickets if any remain. But, as is his responsibility, he's trying to please coach Pat Fitzgerald (he had early concerns) by keeping this a Purple event.
If you're wondering about the UI's 3,000 allotment, this will be quickly eaten up by athletes (four per player), coaches, administrators and I-Fund members with high priorities.
What to do?
Joe Phan, a regular Illini booster who loves the Cubs and considers Wrigley a shrine – their numbers are legion – has choices.
Joe could wait. Northwestern needs to double its season-ticket numbers to sell out.
If he's Internet-creative, there will undoubtedly be opportunities there.
Joe could join the rush for Northwestern season tickets but that's a big expense for games he doesn't want to attend. And he can get only one Wrigley ticket for each season ticket he purchases. Bad deal.
Joe can seek out a Cubs season-ticket holder who doesn't care about football. They're out there somewhere but that's a tough search.
Or Joe can wait it out and see what happens. Best idea. With 42,000 seats, most of them end zone and worse as they extend down the left field line – thousands will be looking sideways – the demand might soften toward the end. Remember, no one can predict the weather on Nov. 20, but it's likely to be cold and blustery. And these are "bubble teams" going into the season, meaning they could be out of the bowl running by Nov. 20. In addition, lest we forget, the parking will be the same as for Cub games (you'd better get elevated train listings).
History reminds that – shame on me for mentioning it – there is a possibility that, upon acquiring a ticket, you have a tough trek getting to a bad seat location in freezing temperatures for a meaningless game. But like Woodstock, where it was uncomfortable and you couldn't see and the sound was distorted, you could say you were there for a once-in-a-lifetime event at baseball Taj Mahal.
So there'll be those who wait and, at worst, pay a scalper's price on game day. There could be desperation sellers a half-hour before the 11 a.m. kickoff. And, if the game is truly meaningful and attractive, chances are it still wouldn't cost as much as buying a Northwestern season ticket.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.