ARMOUR SQUARE — The first football game in Sox Park's 25-year history is in the books — and it wasn't exactly a stunning success.
Northern Illinois University's 31-24 loss to the Toledo Rockets drew just 10,180 fans to Guaranteed Rate Field last week, well below the stadium's 40,000-person capacity. Compared to the sell-out crowd that packed the stadium for Chance the Rapper's Magnificent Coloring Day Festival in September, some are questioning whether the game was a bust.
Ballpark bosses said no way.
"Would we have liked more people here? Of course. But it is what it is when you’re dealing with collegiate athletics," said Lou Bertuca, CEO of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, the agency that owns and runs the ballpark. "The intangible benefit of it far outweighed any disappointment."
Though attendance was sparse, Bertuca considers the game a victory for both the authority and the city's South Side. For one, he said, the ESPN-televised game put Guaranteed Rate Field under a national spotlight, drawing attention from other college-football programs interested in playing at Sox park.
"The showcase has propelled us to talking to other schools in the area from bigger divisions," said Bertuca, who would not name any of schools since negotiations are still "preliminary."
When news broke that college football would make its debut in Armour Square, the authority expected to draw hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue and fees through its rental agreement with Northern Illinois.
The authority has not seen final revenue numbers for the football game, according to Bertuca, who expects revenue to be more than $200,000 for both the Magnificent Coloring Day festival and football game combined.
So why did the game have such a poor turnout?
Bertuca blames several factors, such as the fact the game was played a day after the exhausting presidential election, statewide burnout after the Chicago Cubs' first World Series win in 108 years — and NIU's poor record during the 2016 season.
"A lot of that stuff takes the oxygen out of the room," Bertuca said.
In 2015, the Huskies beat the Rockets 32-47, drawing more than 23,000 fans to Toledo's stadium. The Huskies finished the season 8-6. As of Friday, NIU's record was 4-7.
"For college football games, it kind of goes with how well you’re doing. We knew [attendance] was going to be less than we originally hoped for," Bertuca said. "NIU fans are used to being in national contention for a big-time bowl game. ... Husky nation is still very supportive of their football team, but like any other college program, we probably had a little bit of a depression because it’s been a difficult year."
Bertuca considers the next year as a time of growth for Sox Park — a time to transform it into a venue that's used for much more than baseball.
Neighborhood businesses are happy to see the effort.
After the Chance festival on Sept. 24 — a show that sold out less than a week after tickets went on sale — the authority surveyed neighborhood businesses about sales during the event.
The survey included eight businesses near the ballpark: Shinnick’s, Rocky’s, Morrie O’Malley’s, Turtle’s, Cork and Kerry at the Park, Buffalo Wings & Rings, Mitchell’s Tap and Schaller’s Pump.
"Five of the eight said that sales did increase by more than 10 percent," Bertuca said. At Morrie O’Malley’s, sales went up 20 percent, the survey showed.
Business owners also overwhelmingly supported a question asking whether they wanted more concerts at Guaranteed Rate Field.
"Eight out of eight said 'yes,'" Bertuca said.
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