This weekend marks the third straight year Indianapolis hosts the Big Ten Conference football championship. The game has sold out, with 65,000 fans faithful to Ohio State, Michigan State, and the conference expected to attend.
That’s about 24,000 more than the total for last year’s game between Wisconsin and Nebraska.
While it’s the third time the championship game has been played at Lucas Oil Stadium, it remains a weekend with plenty of firsts surrounding the event.
The most notable of these is Ohio State’s participation in the game: After being banned from postseason play last year due to NCAA sanctions, the Buckeyes and their considerable fanbase roll into Indianapolis—where the NCAA is headquartered—for the first time behind a 24-game win streak.
The influx of Buckeye fans—in addition to Spartan fans—resulted in 1,250 more hotel rooms being sold in downtown Indy compared to last year, according to the Indianapolis Business Journal.
The most high-profile first—outside the game itself—is the first broadcast of ESPN’s College GameDay program in Indianapolis, in correlation with the game. The show has been broadcast from a different college campus every Saturday since 1993, but hadn’t made it to Indianapolis until today.
The GameDay experience, which lasted from 9 a.m. to noon in Pan Am Plaza downtown, wouldn’t be complete without a cast of characters from the competing schools and a sea of witty homemade signs. Among the fans in attendance at Pan Am Plaza was a boisterous Ohio State supporter nicknamed “Buck-I-Guy.”
“It’s really a three-hour drive, but we got stuck in [the snow] last night,” Buck-I-Guy said. “It was a six-hour drive from Columbus [Ohio]. But we came here because it’s the Big Ten Championship.”
“Buck-I-Guy’s” real name is John Chubb, according to the custom business card that proudly displays Chubb clad in his all-white game-day costume, which includes a 10-gallon hat and a giant cape, each emblazoned with the Ohio State logo. Chubb, a veteran of more than 10 GameDay broadcasts, is a native of Columbus, and the short distance to Indianapolis means he’s no stranger to the Circle City.
“Indianapolis is only three hours from my house, so I’m up here all the time,” Chubb said. “[It] does such a great job with events, it’s unbelievable. It’s very, very becoming. You can park your car and walk anywhere.”
Another Buckeye fan in town is Tim Weschke, who flew in from Columbus Friday night. Weschke and his group have visited Indianapolis on more than one occasion for the NCAA basketball tournament and Colts football games.
“[Indianapolis] has a lot of hotels centrally located downtown. Hotels, bars and restaurants. Everything seems to be set up for this kind of event,” Weschke said in the lobby of the Omni Hotel. “It reminds me a lot of Columbus, quite honestly.”
Weschke considers himself a fan of the Big Ten at large, even rival Michigan when that team is not competing against Ohio State. Weschke said he would have been at this weekend’s game even if his Buckeyes weren’t.
“One of my sales reps has season tickets to the Colts and he had an opportunity to buy the tickets early on,” said Weschke, who frequents Slippery Noodle Inn, a historic bar near Lucas Oil Stadium, when he visits Indianapolis.
Back at the GameDay stage, near a tent where workers handed out free cans of Coke Zero to the freezing crowd, was Bryan Wiggins. Wiggins, an Alabama native, hoisted—for the first time–one of two large Washington State University flags above the crowd for ESPN’s cameras to see. The flags are a staple of the GameDay experience, appearing onsite more than 130 times since October 2013.
“[Indianapolis] just had a Super Bowl, and they did a good job,” said Wiggins, who lived here with his wife, a native of the city, before they moved to Chicago.
Proving that, for one weekend, Indianapolis was the center of the entire college-sports universe, there were (in addition to WSU) flags for Clemson University and the University of Alabama, the latter carried by Bruce McCreoly, a native of that state who has lived in Indianapolis for a year.
But Indianapolis wasn’t just the meeting place for the big schools. Tyler Riordan, a native of Mount Vernon, Indiana (west of Evansville) brandished a flag for Murray State University, a school in Murray, Kentucky.
“It’s a great event, and this year is going to be bigger than ever with Ohio State being in it. They definitely travel well,” said Riordan, who has called Indy home for five years, lives on the northwest side, and is himself a fan of the Indiana University Hoosiers. “[IU] being in the Big Ten championship game is the longest shot ever.”
Another long shot was Riordan getting into the game. With tickets sold out, the Mount Vernon native would miss out on this contest after attending its first two championship games here.
Photos by Daniel McFadin