INDIANAPOLIS — Wisconsin and No. 14 Nebraska likely will play Saturday night’s Big Ten title game in front of at least a few empty seats.
A little more than 24 hours before kickoff, thousands of tickets remained unsold and local organizers and Big Ten officials were already saying they didn’t anticipate selling all of them.
“I think from the vantage point in the press box, you’re going to see empty seats,” said John Dedman, a spokesman for Indiana Sports Corp., which helps the Big Ten put on the game. “But at the same time, there’s going to be a lot of people in those seats. There are 67,000 seats in there.”
This has not been a good year for the Big Ten, which has four teams ranked in the Top 25.
No. 4 Ohio State (12-0, 8-0) isn’t playing for the title because it’s ineligible for postseason play. Had the Buckeyes made it, ticket sales likely would have been more brisk.
Penn State (8-4, 6-2) finished second in the Leaders Division but also is out of the mix because it cannot play in a bowl game.
So the third-place Badgers (7-5, 4-4) have a chance to become the first conference team to reach the Rose Bowl in three straight years since Michigan in the late 1970s.
Both Nebraska (10-2, 7-1) and Wisconsin are known for taking large contingents of fans on the road. But this time, neither school sold its entire 15,000-ticket allotment, and general public ticket sales fell behind last year’s pace, too, making plenty of seats available for walk-up sales Saturday.
“It’s noticeably behind last year,” Dedman said of the pace. “Obviously, it’s been a unique year for the Big Ten. But it also means that those who are coming downtown tomorrow can walk right into Lucas Oil Stadium and see what we think is going to be a great game.”
It’s an unusual situation in Indianapolis, a city that has embraced all forms of major sporting events ranging from the Final Four and Super Bowl to national championships in track and field, swimming and diving and gymnastics.
This is the second straight year the title game will be played in Indy. Last year, the game was nearly sold out, and the title game is scheduled to return to Indy in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Coach Bo Pelini said at a news conference Friday that he expects the retractable-roof dome stadium to be closer to capacity than most expect.
“I know I can speak for the Nebraska fans, saying I can guarantee you there are going to be a tremendous amount of walk-ups,” Pelini said. “Anybody that was at the Northwestern game and saw how many Nebraska fans showed up and how they represented our program and the passion that comes along with it. I would expect nothing less tomorrow night.”
And even if fans fulfill the expectations and the stadium isn’t as close to capacity as it was last season, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema still expects the stadium to have a festive atmosphere.
“Everybody is asking about the crowd size. I know everybody, a lot of people are going to be in red and white Adidas, I know that much,” Bielema said, drawing laughter because the teams have the same colors.
How many people will actually show up for Saturday’s game?
Organizers are hopeful it will be a lot more than the current projections.
“We’ve got a lot of people coming to town and a lot of people who are excited to be here for the game and are looking forward to tomorrow night,” Dedman said.