BRICK HOUSE: Purdue beat Northwestern 32-14 at Wrigley Field in 2021. This season, the hometown Wildcats play host to Iowa at the ballpark on Nov.4. (Getty Images)
Cubs, ‘Cats hope to book more football games at ballpark
Chicago Cubs officials expect a sellout crowd of 40,000 to pack Wrigley Field for the Iowa-Northwestern college football game, said Colin Faulkner, the Cubs’ executive vice president of sales and marketing and chief commercial officer.
The Nov. 4 contest, branded as the Wildcats Classic, marks the third time Northwestern has played football at the Friendly Confines, following Big Ten Conference games in 2010 and 2021 against Illinois and Purdue, respectively.
“There’s been a lot of interest, especially from Iowa, given the number of their fans that both go to the university and have alumni that reside in Chicago, Faulkner said. “There’s been strong crossover between Cubs fans and Iowa fans.”
The deal between the Cubs and the Wildcats is a joint partnership, with both parties sharing financial risk, Faulkner said, without getting into specific details on the revenue streams.
The Cubs are selling tickets to the game through their website and marketing the suites, which have been a hot item, Faulkner said.
On its own, Northwestern sold all-inclusive premium seat packages tied to club seats across multiple private lounges, running from about $300 to $500 a person.
Faulkner said the Cubs hope to book more Northwestern football games in the future, depending on the timeline for the proposed $800 million reconstruction of Ryan Field and Cubs home game schedules.
“We have a great relationship with the Cubs and we fully expect to continue playing games there as long as they allow us to come back,” said Denee Barracato, Northwestern’s deputy director of operations and capital projects.
School officials are still pointing to 2026 to reopen a new and improved stadium on the Evanston, Illinois, campus, Barracato said. No details have been finalized regarding future games at Wrigley while Ryan Field is under construction.
The project won’t break ground until Northwestern reaches an agreement with city of Evanston officials and neighorhood residents over issues such as booking concerts at the school’s renovated stadium.
Thirteen years ago, the vision was for Northwestern to play five football games at Wrigley, Faulkner said. Things changed over the past decade, due in large part to ballpark renovations, but the Cubs remain bullish about hosting more Northwestern events, whether it’s football, baseball or women’s lacrosse, all of which have competed at Wrigley.
The Cubs also have their eye on securing another NHL Winter Classic outdoor hockey game after playing host to the event in 2009. They’re also in talks with Big Ten officials to potentially book college hockey games at Wrigley, Faulkner said.
For Northwestern football, the concept of playing football at Wrigley was driven by the opportunity to expand the school’s overall profile beyond campus, according to Jim Phillips, Northwestern’s athletic director at the time. The 2010 event marked the first football game at the ballpark since the Chicago Bears played home games at Wrigley from 1921 to 1970.
Wildcats fans remember the 2010 game in which both teams had to play offense moving in the same direction after Big Ten officials determined at the last minute that the players’ safety was at risk due to space constraints with the field layout.
For that game, the east end zone measured as short as six inches to the right field wall. Both teams had approved the layout, but the adjustment was made after a media tour and subsequent stories were published about the tight dimensions.
The reconstruction of Wrigley Field, completed for the most part in 2019, resolved those issues for the Northwestern-Purdue game two years later.
The Cubs, in conjunction with sports architect Populous, took those issues into consideration when planning the upgrades to accommodate special events apart from baseball, whether it’s for concerts, football games or hockey games.
Scott Arey, Northwestern’s associate athletic director for events and facilities, was also part of those discussions, said Barracato, who was hired in July 2019 after the renovations were done.
“We engaged everyone in those plans, to see what we had done in conjunction with the Cubs to make sure we were all on the same page and in agreement with the adjustments that had been done in comparison with 2010,” she said. “We received those approvals and were able to play the game in 2021 without any hiccups and were happy with the outcome.”
As part of Wrigley’s $760 million makeover, the Cubs dugout and brick wall along the third base line were rebuilt with the flexibility to remove those structures in sections with a forklift to create additional “runoff” near that end zone. Runoff is a term to describe the amount of space players have to navigate after going out of bounds before encountering a wall, goal post and the stands.
“It’s not like we’re taking it out brick by brick,” Faulkner said. “It can be lifted out in pieces and filled in with styrofoam and dirt. If you’re standing in that end zone, the dugout would be underneath you, effectively.”
For the 2021 game, it was a learning process for ballpark crews to convert that portion of the ballpark for football. This year, the Cubs expect it to go more smoothly after gaining that experience, he said.
The first base dugout remains untouched for football, but the mound will be removed for football, Faulkner said.
Similar to 2021, both Iowa and Northwestern squads will be stationed along the same sideline, due to the field running from the Cubs dugout toward right field. Otherwise, placing the teams on opposite sides of the field would block the views from a lot of the lower bowl seats because the pitch is so flat, Faulkner said.
Among the other temporary retrofits for football are suites hovering above the 50-yard line, which will be converted to coaching booths for both teams and equipped with the proper communication technology in place at traditional college football venues.
This year, for the first time, Northwestern has access to Gallagher Way, the fan plaza next to Wrigley Field, for pregame hospitality, extending to food, drink and live music, and the plaza’s videoboard will be activated as part of the festivities,, Barracato said. The school has also rented space in restaurants across the street from the ballpark.
In addition, Northwestern has the rights to sell its licensed merchandise on site. The school is working with its vendors to create event-specific retail items, including a “locked helmet” T-shirt with logos from both schools, she said.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.