CHICAGO – The Northern Illinois football team will make history when it faces off against rival Toledo on Nov. 9 at U.S. Cellular Field.
The Huskies will play the Rockets next fall in what will be the first game ever played at the ballpark, which is the home of the White Sox. The game is being billed the "Huskie Chi-Town Showdown," the schools announced Wednesday.
Northern Illinois Athletic Director Sean Frazier said he hopes to sell out the around 30,000 available seats for the game, citing that the university has 145,000 alumni in the Chicago area. However, he said he understood that he had to choose between the DeKalb-area fan base and Chicago-area fan base when it comes to this weeknight home game.
"It's what they say, 'Leadership is lonely,' " Frazier said of the decision. "There's no such thing as standing still. Either we're going to get the fan base – and we have to move forward with creative ways of dealing with some of the challenges. Some of the challenges with the midweek games, we have great TV exposure, but we have to get people comfortable to come out and support the Huskies.
"Nobody wants to give away home field – I'm a former coach, I want to put it in front of my fans, " Frazier continued, referring to moving the game away from Huskie Stadium. "But I've got 145,000 reasons that somebody is going to jump on the train to check out this game."
Frazier, who said playing a game somewhere in Chicago became a priority when he took over in 2013, said staging the event required balancing several different entities – including the Mid-American Conference, the White Sox and the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority (ISFA), owner and operator of the field.
Lou Bertuca, the CEO of the ISFA, said during the press conference that he expects the revenue for the entity to be in the "hundreds of thousands." Although Frazier said that the details of the revenue breakdown were unavailable, he expects it to be a financial success for the Huskies.
"Some of those financials are going to come out, but we're going to be (on a) significant economic plus side on this one," Frazier said. "If we get 30,000 people here, it's going to be the greatest thing since sliced bread."
Frazier said season ticket prices would remain the same, but that individual tickets for the game against Toledo will likely be higher than for a normal game.
Despite the rivalry with the Rockets, the last three home games at Huskie Stadium against Toledo have shown a declining attendance.
Recent matchups with Toledo at Huskie Stadium drew 18,472 in 2010, 17,813 in 2012 and 8,432 in 2014 – although the cold, windy weather in 2014 likely was a factor.
"I need the games down the stretch in November, the ones that will determine if we go to an access bowl or a MAC Championship, that we have attendance," Frazier said.
The Huskies have played at Soldier Field three times since 2007, playing Iowa in 2007 (16-3 loss) and 2012 (18-17 loss) and Wisconsin in 2011 (49-7 loss). The Northern Illinois football team isn't the first Huskie squad to play at U.S. Cellular Field. The baseball team lost 5-4 to Notre Dame in April 2008.
According to the release, the field will be laid out with end zones being along the third base line and near the right field wall.
"It's going to be a full-dimension field – there might be some short corners, I have not looked at the final diagrams," Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said. "I've looked at the preliminary ones on how it's going to be. For 99 percent of it, it's going to be normal operation."
When Northwestern and Illinois played at Wrigley Field in 2010, the field was so cramped that both teams were only able to go one direction on offense. While recent college football games being played in baseball stadiums have been reserved for Power 5 teams and bowl games, MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said the exposure of the game, which will be aired on a to-be-determined ESPN platform, is great for the conference.
"There's a neat buzz about that game, anyway," Steinbrecher said. "Toledo and NIU is always a big game, but to bring it here, it'll almost have a bowl feel to it."
For Frazier, there was discussion about playing in different places in the Chicago area before the plan for U.S. Cellular Field became a reality. He wanted to target the Chicago-area alumni base with a midweek game, he said.
"We had some non-conference games, but to get a game that means something – that game (against Toledo), especially in the last six years, has meant who goes to the MAC Championship, yhat's big time," Frazier said.
Carey dismissed the idea of it removing a true home game, saying that instead the Huskies are moving a home game to another home venue. He admitted that a major perk of being at Huskie Stadium is the familiarity that comes with it, but he hopes a bigger home crowd for the midweek game will outweigh that.
"There's something to the friendly confines of the place you know and have seen and the sight lines and all that stuff," Carey said. "But the crowd, in the end, probably plays the majority of a home-field advantage."
U.S. Cellular Field has a baseball capacity of 40,615 – but that will be reduced to 30,000 for the football game between the two MAC schools.