For University of Wisconsin football fans hoping to see the team play its first game away from Camp Randall Stadium this season, it’ll require more than sitting down on their couch and picking up the remote control.
Saturday’s non-conference game between No. 7 UW (2-0) and Northern Illinois (1-1) at Soldier Field in Chicago will be live-streamed on ESPN3, an online-only channel. It’s the first time since the Badgers hosted Northwestern on Oct. 7, 2006, that a UW game will not be televised in the traditional sense. That game also was live-streamed on ESPN’s website.
While the game will be played on a neutral field, it’s considered a home game for the Huskies, meaning the Mid-American Conference holds its television rights. The MAC has a contract with ESPN, which decided to put the game on a platform it has been actively promoting as “a 24/7 destination that delivers thousands of global sports events annually,” including some that might not be otherwise offered.
Big Ten Network never had the option of picking up this game.
UW associate athletic director Justin Doherty said he called the Big Ten Conference offices a few weeks ago to see if there was anything that could be done to get the game televised in the state, but the league said its hands were tied.
ESPN is “very aggressive with marketing (the ESPN3 digital platform) and broadening their exclusivity of having key matchups and games on that platform,” said Ken Mather, an assistant commissioner in charge of media and public relations for the MAC. “And certainly, this game is one of those.”
ESPN3 is available to about 70 million homes at no additional cost to fans who receive their high-speed Internet connection or video subscription from affiliated service providers such as Charter Communications or Frontier Communications.
Those fans can access the game online at espn3.com. The webcast can be played through a television connected to an Internet-ready laptop or through an Internet-enabled Xbox 360 if the user has a Gold level Xbox LIVE membership. It also is available on smartphones and tablets via the WatchESPN app through an affiliated provider.
On the other end of the spectrum are those UW fans who don’t have a computer — or those who have a computer but don’t have the high-speed Internet capability to handle streaming video.
Some UW fans will be making the trip to Soldier Field to watch the Badgers play in person, but not nearly as many as Northern Illinois officials had hoped.
Dubbed the “Soldier Field Showdown II,” it’s been a letdown in terms of ticket sales. Northern Illinois athletic director Donna Turner said that as of Monday morning, about 35,000 tickets had been sold to watch a game at an NFL venue that seats 61,500.
It’s a far cry from the first “Soldier Field Showdown,” when the venue was sold out nearly two months in advance of a 2007 game between Northern Illinois and Iowa.
“We had high hopes that Wisconsin would have the same kind of response,” Turner said. “We still are hopeful with the start that they’ve had this year and with people talking more about it this week, that we can get into the 40,000 range.”
Turner said “it’s a little bit of a mystery” why ticket sales have been so slow, but there appear to be several factors at work.
The 2007 game was played on Labor Day weekend and it was the season opener for both teams, meaning Iowa and Northern Illinois fans hadn’t seen their respective teams play in eight months. UW already has played two home games this season and has three more before its first true road game on Oct. 22 against Michigan State, giving fans ample opportunity to see the team play without having to travel.
There’s also the matter of cost. Ticket prices for the 2007 game were $44.40 (upper levels) and $55.50 (lower levels and midfield); four years later, the prices at those levels were set at $60 and $75. There was also a $90 option for club seats for the UW-Northern Illinois game.
John Chadima, UW’s senior associate AD for capital projects and sports administration, said UW had no input in ticket price.
The contract called for UW to receive a $1 million guarantee regardless of the number of tickets it sold. It ended up selling about 11,000 from an allowance of 12,500 tickets. That doesn’t count fans who bought tickets through Ticketmaster, where prices are inflated by a handling fee and range from $70.31 to $101.31.
UW athletic director Barry Alvarez declined to comment when asked about the lack of television coverage for the game and the lagging ticket sales.
Regarding the latter, Chadima and UW coach Bret Bielema both pointed to high ticket prices as a reason UW fans won’t be flocking to Chicago.
“It’s probably down to the finances,” Bielema said, “and what people can afford or not afford.”