Why Wisconsin, not Illinois is the Northwestern Opponent at Wrigley Field

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Tuesday morning saw the Chicago Cubs and Northwestern athletics “announce” during a news conference at Wrigley Field that NU will play the Wisconsin Badgers in a 2020 college football game. In having 2020 vision, you’ll see that NU was forced to choose between one of two Ryan Field home dates that could be moved to the Friendly Confines. 

Obviously, the park’s main tenants, the Chicago Cubs, are kind of busy with it each September, and having reached the last three Naitonal League Championship Series, likely using it in October too.  

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So that left home games against Wisconsin and Illinois as the only options. NU “hosted” the Illini last time, in 2010, and got annihilated 48-27. So why are they going with Bucky this time?

Quoting the Chicago Tribune story from last Thursday:

 “only two 2020 dates were possible: Nov. 7 against Wisconsin and Nov. 28 versus Illinois. (Northwestern is off Nov. 14 and plays at Minnesota on Nov. 21.) Just as Illinois moved its 2017 and 2019 games against Northwestern from Soldier Field to Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Northwestern does not want its in-state rival to get a marketing boost from a game at Wrigley Field.”

NU Athletic Director Dr. Jim Phillips was asked why Wisconsin was the optimal opponent and optimal game.

“Well, we’re not going to play here in September, and October baseball has a home here, so that cuts out all the October dates, so it really came down to November, and just the opportunity to bring Wisconsin here,” Phillips responded.

“I have a very close relationship with Barry Alvarez, it makes sense from a date stand point, makes sense from a timing stand point,  a I think it’s going to be a great opponent for us.”

All of what Phillips said and the Tribune reported about why Wisconsin was chosen over the Illini is all true of course, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

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When the University of Illinois decided to move the Soldier Field “home” games against NU back to Champaign, they cited a desire to have conference rivalry games on campus as the reason.

While that rationale is technically true, in the big picture, it’s obviously party line corporatespeak nonsense, and while Illinois without a doubt has no interest in helping Northwestern in the marketing and branding arms race, the real answer was apparent- very poor attendance.

Given how awful the attendance was for that game on the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 2015 at Soldier Field, it’s understandable why one would want to avoid scheduling these two teams within the city limits again.

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A 2014 New York Times study claimed that Chicago “may have the most intricate set of loyalties of any city in the country. Those loyalties are split among Notre Dame, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio State and Northwestern.”

That’s also the order of popularity in Chicago- ND #1, UM #2, Illini #3 and so on.

Since the “Wrigleyville Classic” in 2010, when Mikel Leshoure ran for a school record 330 yards (all towards one end zone, more on that later in the next post) to propel the Illini to a blowout win over the Wildcats, much has changed. The next season Illini head coach Ron Zook was fired and the program made a sharp nose dive under the next regime, led by Tim Beckman/Bill Cubit. 

The stark degradation has continued under Cubit’s replacement Lovie Smith and doesn’t show any signs at all of recovering any time soon. Right now, scheduling the Illini for any kind of high profile game is a very risky proposition. They have only beaten NU twice since the Wrigleyville Classic and the decline of their on field product has of course led to a massive drop-off in visibility and general interest.

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Things of course could change between now and 2020, but the program has a lot of ground to make up if they are to be relevant again in just two seasons from now.

In the 2010s Wisconsin has established themselves as the perennial power of the B1G West and their presence creates the potential for national buzz as this will likely be the Wildcats’ biggest and most important home game on the schedule. Maybe we’ll even see the return of ESPN’s three hour sponsored content program masquerading as a college football preview show known as “College Gameday back at 1060 W. Addison. 

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net and TheBank.News, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, a former writer for the Washington Times, NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com, currently contributes regularly to WGN CLTV and the Tribune company’s blogging community Chicago Now.

Follow him on TwitterInstagramSound Cloud, LinkedIn and YouTube.

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