In November 2010, 41,058 fans jammed into Wrigley Field to see a college football game between Illinois and Northwestern with a field configuration so tight, both teams were forced to use the same end zone.
Now, the Cubs want to make Northwestern football games a regular fixture at Wrigley and take it a step further by hosting a bowl game, just like Yankee Stadium plays host to the Pinstripe Bowl.
“We have a really great venue that we’re putting close to $600 million into renovating. Our goal is to use it as often as we can in productive ways,” said Crane Kenney, president of business operations for the world champion Cubs.
“We branched out into music in 2005. We did the Winter Classic with the Blackhawks and Red Wings in 2009. Then we did the Northwestern game in 2010. We did a soccer game with the Polish team. We’ve been utilizing the ballpark for more than just baseball for a few years now. And we really like the idea of an event in the ballpark after the season ends that keeps the building busy. It will support what we’re doing in the plaza and with our hotel and restaurant partners. And it’s good for the city.”
Kenney acknowledged that the ambitious plan will have to wait until 2020 when the team’s plan to renovate Wrigley and develop the land around it has been completed.
It would also take that long to put together the logistics of a bowl game that includes NCAA approval, aligning with a particular conference, preferably the Big Ten, and lining up sponsors and broadcast partners.
But Kenney said he has every confidence that can and will be done to create a December event that could become a rare winter tourist attraction for Chicago.
“The Bears played [at Wrigley] for 50 years — until 1970 — in weather that wasn’t always perfect. What we’re learning, not just from the Pinstripe Bowl but from the Super Bowl played in the Meadowlands, is that weather isn’t the sole factor. The attractiveness of the destination is a factor,” Kenney said.
“While it might not be going to the beach before and after the game, it will likely be going to some great restaurants, using Michigan Avenue, using the cultural assets like the museum campus to create a different type of event around the game. But one that’s just as attractive.”
Kenney noted that the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley attracted the NHL’s highest television ratings in more than three decades.
Concerts that may not be sell-outs elsewhere also attract record crowds at Wrigley, he said.
Even though college football has played to empty seats at Soldier Field and Guaranteed Rate Field, Kenney said he’s certain that Wrigley would break the mold because it already has.
“We draw well at Wrigley. A lot of it has to do with the neighborhood as well as the allure of the ballpark. So we think, with all due respect, that it’s a little different venue than some of the ones you mentioned,” he said.
Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), whose ward includes Wrigley, was all for the idea of regular football games and even an annual bowl game at Wrigley.
“Other than the field being laid out improperly for Illinois and Northwestern, I thought it was a boon to the city and a pretty cool event,” Tunney said of the 2010 game at Wrigley.
“The ordinance does allow them to do events in the off-season. The idea of the plaza and all of the development is to try to make it an activity for not just the baseball season. We’ve got hotel rooms and restaurants to fill and retail that’s gonna be amazing. We want to make sure there’s activity there. Having a bowl game or a football game on an annual basis is an interesting idea to bring fans into the neighborhood.”
As for the one-end-zone-only configuration in the 2010 game at Wrigley that saw Illinois trounce Northwestern 48-27, Kenney said it will not be repeated.
That’s because the Wrigley renovation plan was planned around the idea of football games at Wrigley.
“It’ll be remedied by basically pushing the west end zone a little further into the seating bowl,” Kenney said.
“Part of our restoration is to put the wall on that western side on pegs so that you can move it with a forklift. Pick it up and move it.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has not yet been approached about the idea of regular college football games and an annual bowl game at Wrigley. But on a day when the mayor and the tourism agency known as Choose Chicago announced a record, 54.1 million visitors to the city in 2016, sources said Emanuel was gung-ho about the idea of adding an event that could be a tourist draw during the winter doldrums.