Marty Hickman has heard the speculation as long as he has been executive director of the Illinois High School Association: move the football state finals closer to the state's largest population center and watch attendance rise.
That long-held theory gets put to the test Friday and Saturday when Northern Illinois University hosts eight IHSA state championship games at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb for the first time. The finals have been held exclusively at Memorial Stadium in Champaign since 1999.
"People have told us for years that if we played some of the Class 5A through 8A games up closer to the population center, we'd get a better turnout," Hickman said last week. "Well, guess what? We're going to find out. We believe that's going to be the case, but we'll know after next weekend whether that worked out or not."
The IHSA 17 months ago awarded the state title games to DeKalb in odd-numbered years through 2021. The finals will remain in Champaign in even-numbered years. The venue switch was necessitated when Big Ten Conference expansion forced a schedule change. The Fighting Illini now play a home game on Thanksgiving weekend in odd-numbered years.
NIU was awarded the championships over finalists Southern Illinois and Illinois State, the latter of which hosted some or all IHSA football title games from 1974 through 1998. This weekend will mark the first time the title games have been contested north of Interstate 80 since the Class 5A and 6A finals were hosted by Northwestern from 1981-85.
The 2012 state finals drew approximately 33,000 fans and had a positive economic impact of $5.8 million on the Champaign-Urbana area, according to the Champaign News-Gazette. The IHSA and the city of DeKalb hope to see an attendance increase due to the event's proximity to Chicago and its surrounding seven counties, an area home to 7.9 million people, according to the 2010 census.
Of the 16 schools competing in this weekend's title games, 11 are located within a 90-minute drive of the NIU campus, seven within a one-hour drive.
Of course, not every school benefits from the new locale. St. Joseph-Ogden, located 12 miles from Memorial Stadium, will instead make the 180-mile trip to DeKalb. The longest trip of any state finalist belongs to downstate Staunton. The Class 2A finalists from the St. Louis area will trek 240 miles to DeKalb.
"From the standpoint of butts in the seats, it's probably better for attendance if the teams are within 45 minutes to an hour rather than three hours like down to Champaign," DeKalb Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Matt Duffy said. "It's the first year it's been here so the actual economic impact is a bit of a guessing game at this point, but I'm sure there will be plenty of people coming through here to support their teams. Some teams travel better and bring more people, and some teams will have to travel more and will stay over. It will definitely be a positive experience. It's an exciting time around here."
Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg directed his team to a Class 6A title-game appearance last season. Though his Trojans were knocked out of this year's playoffs in the second round, he, like many suburbanites, plans to take advantage of the proximity of the state championships.
"I've already talked to my wife about going on Friday and also on Saturday," Seaburg said. "For me, living in northern Illinois, this makes it more accessible to go watch a football game, whereas, you really had to have a vested interest in going all the way down to Champaign."
Fans should appreciate being closer to the action at Huskie Stadium, which seats 24,000 fans.
"I think we're going to enjoy the intimacy of the stadium," Hickman said. "Memorial Stadium has 65,000 seats and sometimes you kind of feel lost there. NIU is a nice-sized stadium and I think it will be a great fit for our event. I think it's going to be loud and intimate. The fans are right on the field. I think our fans are going to love that."
NIU is ready to host from a football perspective. In late October the school debuted the $9.5 million Chessick Center, an 87,000-square foot indoor practice facility connected to the Yordon Center, the building that opens to the north end of Brigham Field at Huskie Stadium. The new facility contains a full-size, 120-yard practice field, where the high school teams will warm up before their title games, similar to the indoor facility next to Memorial Stadium.
"It's a game changer when you have a facility of that type of design and detail," NIU athletic director Sean Frazier said of the Chessick Center. "That's going to change the way we do business. For the IHSA, the way they'll be able to use it before their games will be big time.
"For NIU, you're talking about the quintessential recruiting opportunity in general. A lot of these guys are not going to play college ball. Many of their careers will terminate at the end of these games. Maybe they'll see Northern Illinois as a good place to go to school. It's a great opportunity to showcase DeKalb and NIU. We're looking forward to doing that."
An attendance spike this weekend could have a positive effect on future bids to host IHSA championship events by northern venues, including boys basketball. That sport's contract with Peoria runs through the 2014-15 season, but attendance has waned since the IHSA moved to a four-class system in 2007-08. If football at NIU is a hit, might the IHSA also consider shifting the boys basketball finals to a northern venue to boost attendance? Or perhaps just Classes 3A and 4A?
"To be honest, I haven't given it that much thought but we're certainly open to that," Hickman said. "Our experience here will certainly tell us whether that's something worth exploring or not.
"I know DeKalb has been outstanding in regards to meeting our needs and being in communication with us. We think it's going to be an outstanding event. There's a lot of football mania already going on at Northern for good reason. We're excited about adding the high school aspect."