Northwestern wants to be known as "Chicago's Big Ten team." That's a major reason why the school announced a unique partnership with the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday that will see several of its sports teams play at one of the city's most iconic settings: Wrigley Field.
That deal includes five planned football games that could begin as soon as 2014.
"It's historic," athletic director Jim Phillips told ESPN.com. "This has a chance to be transformational for our department."
The Wildcats played Illinois at Wrigley Field in 2010 in a game that was notable both for its atmosphere and for dimensions that didn't quite live up to expectations. Both teams' offenses had to march to the same end zone because of how cozy the friendly confines was for football.
That's expected to change as the Cubs do some renovations at the grand old ballpark. Phillips said he's seen the plans for renovations and believes Wrigley will be better suited to host a football game in the future.
"They have to do something with the wall down the third base line, something with the Cubs' dugout and the first several rows," he said. "But we've looked at it, and I think everybody feels comfortable about it."
Phillips hopes Northwestern can play there in 2014, but that depends on the Wildcats' schedule and the progress of construction. The Big Ten schedule in 2014 is up in the air until league athletic directors decide on division alignment and how to organize the conference slate before Maryland and Rutgers join the league that season. Their first meeting on those topics is this weekend.
Because of the baseball schedule, the Wildcats are most likely to play football at Wrigley in November to avoid conflicts with the regular-season or playoffs in baseball. (As a St. Louis Cardinals fan, I am showing great restraint here by not making a joke about the Cubs playing in October). A November game would almost certainly mean facing a Big Ten conference opponent in Wrigley, though Phillips said nothing is set in stone.
"We're targeting November, but I wouldn't rule out anything," he said. "I wouldn't rule out September. That really has to be a Cubs call."
The five-game deal isn't tied to a specific timeline, so Northwestern might not play five straight years at the baseball park. Phillips said he likes the flexibility of the arrangement because it allows both sides to adjust based on schedules and construction.
Though the Wildcats lose a home game at Ryan Field by going to Clark and Addison, Phillips said there is a financial advantage to it. In 2010, fans had to buy season tickets to be guaranteed a seat for the Wrigley Field game against Illinois. More than 90 percent of new season-ticket buyers that year renewed their packages the following season, he said.
Having Northwestern teams like baseball, lacrosse, soccer and softball play within the ivy-covered walls also strengthens the school's bond with the city of Chicago. That can only help the Wildcats' marketing and branding efforts.
"We're in a real crowded marketplace, and that's challenging," Phillips said. "We have an alumni base that's the smallest in the Big Ten, and we're only ahead of Penn State in terms of the number of alums in Chicago.
"Having been born and raised here and having always rooted for Chicago teams, I know people here have gone to other schools and have other college teams. But what we hope is that they will have a second favorite college team, and that they will identify Northwestern with Chicago and Chicago with Northwestern."
The school's athletes will also get a chance to play in one of the most famous venues in sports. Can you imagine what it would be like for a Northwestern baseball player to hit a home run at Wrigley, even if it's just in batting practice? The agreement also brings opportunities for students to pursue internships with the Cubs.
"At the end of day for all of us at Northwestern, it's about the student experience," Phillips said. "I don't think anybody can put a value on what it means for our kids. The players who were in that 2010 game still talk about it, and they'll be talking about it for the next 50 years. They will tell their children and grandchildren about it."