By David A. Kelm
At the end of October 2014, the Prairie Capital Convention Center and the University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics announced that the Fighting Illini men’s basketball team would play five games at the Convention Center in November 2015. This announcement heralded perhaps the second most important event in the city’s history, perhaps rivaled only by the unveiling of Springfield as the capital of Illinois in 1837 (a decision, by the way, still venomously whispered about in Vandalia public schools). Just as Springfield’s economy sprang to life when legislators, state employees and lobbyists rode into town, when the Fighting Illini men’s basketball team rolls into the convention center this coming November, it is hoped that Illini fans will positively add to Springfield’s economy.
The Prairie Capital Convention Center general manager Brian Oaks and Shawn Mayernick, PCCC director of business partnerships, began courting the Illini Basketball Team in May 2012. With the planned renovations and upgrades to the Convention Center, Oaks and Mayernick were looking for acts and events that would be able to take full advantage of the changes at the convention center. Initially, Oaks and Mayernick were hoping for an orange and blue intra-squad scrimmage game to be held at the Springfield facility. However, with Assembly Hall undergoing extensive renovation as it transforms into the State Farm Center, the U of I began looking for a home-away-from-home for the men’s basketball team.
The University of Illinois sought bids to host five games in November 2015. In the end, Springfield was joined by Peoria, Bloomington-Normal, Rosemont and Hoffman Estates. Oaks and Mayernick knew that the renovated convention center with new concession stands, bathrooms and perfect site lines would assist in winning the contract. To win over the Illini, though, Oaks and Mayernick threw down the loyalty card. “We know there is a huge Illini following in Springfield,” Mayernick said. “The team wanted it to feel like their home court and not like they were playing in Redbird Arena or on the Bradley campus.” With the Springfield fan base and the ease with which Illini fans from across the state can get to the Capital City, U of I went with the Prairie Capital Convention Center.
Come November 2015, downtown Springfield is sure to have an orange and blue sheen. The final pre-season game on Nov. 8 will be followed by regular season games on Nov. 13, 15, 21 and 23. The convention center will become a “mini State Farm Center” with the Illini trucking in the court and scoreboards. There will be a section for season ticket holders, courtside seating and the loud and proud “Orange Crush” student section. However, tickets are not on sale yet. Mayernick said the most frequent question he gets these days is about Illini tickets. “We have a meeting in the next few weeks with the university to get an idea of when tickets will be available,” Mayernick said.
The convention center has developed a new seating configuration to pack as many fans in as possible. A sold-out game will see 7,600 fans watching their favorite college basketball team. “We estimate 40,000 people will invade Springfield for these five games,” Mayernick said. “Additionally, the schedule is split so that there is a game on a Friday and then Sunday and on a Saturday and then Monday.” Team Illini will overnight in Springfield and practice on the off day.
The schedule, though, also plays into the economic development benefits these games could bring to Springfield. The PCCC is already working with the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau to market Illini basketball weekend packages. The convention center estimates that it has a $72 million impact on Springfield’s economy annually based on 350,000 event attendees. With a potential 40,000 attendees for five games, Springfield could see an impact of approximately $8 million from Illini basketball. “Hotel rooms, restaurants, bar tabs, and downtown shopping can all be part of this experience,” Mayernick said. “The CVB is already doing some advertising up north to attract Illini fans to Springfield for these great weekends.”
The Prairie Capital Convention Center and the University of Illinois are hoping to make the effort as seamless as possible for Illini fans while also positively impacting the Springfield economy. The convention center is also offering sponsorships for local businesses to get involved and invest in the Illini opportunity. “We want Springfield to buy into this effort, show their Illini support and reap the benefits as a community,” Mayernick said. For promotional opportunities or further information, Mayernick can be contacted at 217-788-8800.
Dave Kelm is a Springfield-area attorney who can be reached at DavidAKelm@gmail.com.