On Thursday, BYU and NIU moved their game next season to Seat Geek Stadium in the Chicago metro area. For NIU, this is a great opportunity to build their brand in the third-largest media market. They could not have chosen a better opponent for the second “Huskie Chi-Town Showdown”. BYU has an extensive list of neutral-site games in the past. The Cougars have played in Washington D.C. (West Virginia), Phoenix (Arizona), New Orleans (LSU) and Foxboro (UMass). As the Church of Latter Day Saints sprawls across the United States, the Cougars should have a big following come October.
This year’s game is at a more optimal time than the last time the Huskies played in Chicago in 2016. That year, NIU moved their November home game to Toledo to the home of the White Sox, Guaranteed Rate Field, but on a Tuesday night. As expected, the draw was sparse, barely topping 10,000 fans.
This year’s Chi-Town Showdown comes at an optimal time, as not only will it be on Saturday, but their main competitor in the Windy City, Northwestern will be on the road. With Northwestern coming off of a major down year, a game like this could contribute to the Huskies gaining a bigger foothold in the city. This could become a semi-regular occurrence in the future as NIU has home games scheduled in the future against Vanderbilt and Maryland.
With all of these advantages, there is a twist. NIU is sacrificing 4,000 seats worth of attendance with this move. Yet, the Huskies deem all of the reasons above as worth the risk. This move begs the question, why don’t we see more Group of Five teams follow suit?
There are numerous schools near large markets that could take advantage of a pro venue or larger venue nearby. Schools like North Texas, and Texas State playing a game in Frisco comes to mind. Moves like this can serve to not only rejuvenate urban alumni bases, but also pump energy into rivalries. Imagine the Battle of I-75 between Toledo and Bowling Green being played in a bowl atmosphere at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus or BYU-Utah State in Rio Tinto Stadium in Salt Lake City. While doing this every year could cause neutral site games to lose their luster and cause disgruntled fan bases, the occasional move would be beneficial for fan bases.
Moves to neutral sites do not only have to be relegated to rivalry games, but for prominent games within the Group of Five. One thing the Group of Five lacks is legitimate kickoff games. The opportunities are there, particularly for schools like Boise State. They could easily move their 2021 game against UCF to Camping World Stadium and their game against the Knights in 2023 to Seattle to create a neutral-and-neutral series. Troy had a golden opportunity to create their own kickoff game against the Broncos in 2018, with a move an hour away to Montgomery’s Cramton Bowl.
Making these games a regularity for the Group of Five could close the gap in exposure with the Power Five. The prominent games of Labor Day weekend are always the neutral site games. The Group of Five can monopolize the second week with prominent games, while the Power Fives plays their slate of paycheck games.
NIU’s Chi-Town Huskie Showdown could start a new trend in the Group of Five if it is successful. For that reason, it already is a game to watch in the Group of Five in 2020.