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Orange Means A Lot Of Green For NIU

Tomorrow’s the big day for NIU football fans. 

The Huskies make history when they take on Florida State in the Orange Bowl, one of the best-known college football events since it started in 1935. This will be the 9th Orange Bowl appearance for the Seminoles -- and the first for NIU. In fact, it’s the first time a team from the Mid-American Conference has made it to the prestigious New Year’s Day game.

It has taken a lot of hard work for the Huskies to get this far… and when it comes down to it, it also takes a lot of money. But just what is the economic impact of NIU’s big night in Miami Gardens?

First, it cannot be over-emphasized -- this is a big deal. Ken Mather calls it a “signature opportunity for the Huskies to play in such a prestigious bowl.” He’s head of public relations for the Mid-American Conference, also known as the MAC. It’s the NCAA division NIU is in.

“It’ll be the first program ever from a non-automatic qualifying conference to appear in a BCS game that didn’t have an undefeated season. So they’re really pioneers in that regard.”

The BCS is the Bowl Championship Series, a process for selecting the teams that will go to the very top bowls in the country.

NIU is no stranger to bowl games…just not at the level of the Orange Bowl…the Discover Orange Bowl, as it is officially known. Over the past few years, the Huskies have made it to the Independence Bowl, the International Bowl, the Humanitarian Bowl, the Godaddy.com Bowl… In fact, this has been a record setting year for MAC teams, with seven of twelve achieving bowl berths.

You’d think all the national exposure would be a money-maker for the schools involved. Not necessarily. Think about the expenses involved: feeding and housing athletes while the university is shut down for winter break, travel expenses for the players, coaches, staffers, the marching band… when all the numbers were in, only one recent bowl appearance turned a profit for NIU: and that was because the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise was played on December 18th, saving the team weeks worth of on-campus expenses.

But the Orange Bowl… this is a whole new ball game.

NIU has been preparing for a bowl game since the middle of October, according to Debra Boughton, chief financial officer for NIU’s athletics department. This is her fourth bowl game -- and she has only worked at NIU for a little more than three years. She says making sure expenses are covered is a team effort: there’s money from the MAC and from ticket sales. Still, the last bowl game left the Huskies more than 160-thousand in the red. Boughton says they are able to budget internally for that.

But when you’re talking BCS, you’re talking millions, not thousands. NIU has to meet some financial obligations with the Orange Bowl organizers, according to Boughton. That includes 17, 500 tickets they are obligated to sell or end up paying for. That’s $2.4-million worth.

The good news? Huskie fans have been coming through. As of December 26th, Boughton says NIU has sold 3,174 tickets. The school bought another 2874 for students. Alumni also donated money to help cover tickets. 8,000 tickets have been donated to Miami-area charities, and with band and comp tickets distributed, NIU will put a total of 15,710 people in seats for the game. That’s a little less than 2000 tickets short of the goal. And this is where the MAC comes to the rescue. MAC spokesman Ken Mather says the conference has been ready to assist NIU since the Orange Bowl trip was announced. And that means nearly $4-million from the MAC to help cover the rest of the tickets and other expenses. He says it’s important that NIU knows it’s not alone when it comes to dealing with such a huge undertaking.

And making this possible? The MAC has scored big, thanks to the Huskies great season. The BCS is giving the conference eight million dollars because of the Orange Bowl. Boughton is optimistic about covering expenses, but won’t know if this game will leave the Huskies in the red or black ‘til all the numbers are crunched, and that will take a few months.

NIU won't being alone in trying to figure out the financial impact of the Huskies' Orange Bowl appearance. Some local retailers stand to see a bump in merchandise profits. 

Kerry Sherlock manages Hyvee, a grocery in Sycamore. 

"It's been good for us with t-shirt sales, sweatshirt sales, hats and other paraphernalia." 

Sherlock says they don't have any hard numbers yet, but he says sales have been brisk. Looking beyond the business aspect of the game, Sherlock says he sees a lot of excitement from customers. Sherlock, who isn't from the DeKalb area, says it's something he can relate to.

    "I grew up in the Iowa City-area, and we had the University of Iowa there. So football Saturdays have always been special to me. And getting to a university community and having a good team like the Huskies to support is a lot of fun." 

In downtown DeKalb, S.O.A.S. Apparel and Design is selling more NIU gear than it normally does. Manager Brenda Lehan says their client base is mostly made up of local residents, not NIU students. But she says even the locals want to snatch up something with a Huskie logo on it.

Lehan says even though she expects the team's success to have a favorable effect on profits, she's trying to be careful not go go overboard with Huskie gear. That includes not producing any items that specifically mention the Orange Bowl.

  "The reality is is that I'm a small retailer. I don't wanna get stuck with any inventory. After the game is through, I don't wanna have a lot of money tied up in it."

Still, Lehan points out that she's an NIU alum. And like so many in the community, she's proud of her football team.

Susan is an award-winning reporter/writer at her favorite radio station. She's also WNIJ's Perspectives editor, Under Rocks contributor, and local host of All Things Considered.
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