IHSA puts venue for state football finals up for bid

Champaign/DeKalb rotation ends after 2022 season

St. Rita's B.J. Hall makes a play after the catch against Wheaton North in the Class 7A state championship Nov. 27, 2021 at NIU's Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

The IHSA released its bid requirements Tuesday for venues hoping to host the IHSA football finals, and although the potential venue might ultimately be one that has hosted the finals before, change definitely is coming to the process.

During the current bid contract, the IHSA has alternated annually between DeKalb (Northern Illinois University) and Champaign (University of Illinois). The 2022 finals in Champaign this November will be the last of the 10-year arrangement.

A shared bid, however, will not be an option for the next contract. The IHSA is seeking a single host to fulfill a five-year contract, running from the 2023 finals until the 2027 finals.

The shared-bid arrangement was at least in part a way to allow the University of Illinois to still participate in the process as the university needed a guarantee of home-field availability every other year for its football program to play a Big Ten Conference game on the same weekend traditionally scheduled for the IHSA finals. In 2021, Illinois hosted rival Northwestern in Champaign at the same time as the IHSA finals took place at NIU. In 2022, Illinois again is open to host.

The Big Ten has not released schedule information for the league beyond 2022. Reports indicate that the conference is considering some changes to its scheduling practices, which could impact the University of Illinois’ ability to put in a bid.

Also among the many primary requirements that the IHSA bid process asked for is a venue with a minimum of 12,000 seats. Only six primary football venues meet that requirement: Soldier Field in Chicago, Ryan Field at Northwestern University in Evanston, Memorial Stadium at the University of Illlinois, Huskie Stadium at NIU, Hancock Stadium at Illinois State University and Saluki Stadium at Southern Illinois University.

But the bigger hurdle for any potential applicant is the ability to meet each of the five dates without conflict. Here are the dates the IHSA designated for the next five state finals:

2023Nov. 24-25
2024Nov. 29-30
2025Nov. 28-29
2026Nov. 27-28
2027Nov. 26-27

Although unofficial, it seems likely that some sort of Big Ten scheduling conflict likely will be in play for both Illinois and Northwestern (although Northwestern has never publicly pursued the finals since it hosted the Class 5A and Class 6A finals from 1981-84). Soldier Field’s grass surface doesn’t seem to make it a great fit as a host with eight state championship games contested over two days. Any games potentially only days before a Bears home game would be a recipe for problems (like Northwestern, Soldier Field never actively has pursued the finals, although high school games have been played at the venue before).

Illinois State and Southern Illinois run into the problem of potentially having to decline hosting postseason games in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs should they qualify and also receive the IHSA bid to host. That may not deter either from trying, and Illinois State hosted state finals from 1974 until 1999, when the finals moved to Champaign. Illinois State, with its newly renovated venue, clearly would like another chance at the showcase event.

The IHSA will hold the open bid process until Sept. 2, with the IHSA board expected to take action on the bids by its December monthly meeting.