How a Chicago suburb 1,318 miles from the Bahamas came to sponsor a bowl game

ELK GROVE VILLAGE, Ill. -- Each time the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl cut to commercial break Friday, a sports bar 1,300 miles away from Nassau prepared to erupt.

The cheering started each time the screens showed Elk Grove Village, its now-trademarked slogan: "Makers Wanted," and images from the town. About 200 business owners, village trustees, firemen, police officers, public works employees, curious residents and randoms -- some wearing tropical teal Bahamas Bowl T-shirts -- gathered Friday at Real Time Sports, just west of Interstate 290. Attendees enjoyed a $5.95 buffet, a raffle with Yeti tumblers and participated in a crowd cutaway during the fourth quarter of ESPN's broadcast.

This was no ordinary watch party. Elk Grove Village, a Chicago suburb flanking the west side of O'Hare International Airport, had spent $300,000 (plus another $100,000 in marketing and advertising) to be the title sponsor of a bowl game in the Caribbean featuring Group of 5 teams from Ohio and Florida in the middle of the day.


"There are still people who are astonished by it," said Nathan Gac, a battalion chief for the Elk Grove Village Fire Department who attended the watch party. "But people are talking about it. I haven't heard anything too negative. There's been a lot of amazement."

There's still amazement, as well as doubt, about this bowl partnership, the first by a non-tourist destination. For those wondering, it was 77 degrees at kickoff Friday in Nassau, and barely above freezing (34 degrees) in Elk Grove Village.

But like any bold marketing idea, the primary goal is to create discussion and interest. In that regard, Elk Grove Village ended up a bigger winner than Florida International, which defeated Toledo 35-32 in the game.

"It's been beyond what we ever expected, the reception we've gotten across all the spectrum," said Mayor Craig Johnson, who attended Friday's game. "Do you think The New York Times did a story when Popeye's came out as the [Bahamas Bowl] sponsor? I don't think so. Obviously, we didn't expect this. Our goal was to get 95 percent of the benefit by the kickoff. We've gotten 195,000 times the benefit."

The watch party didn't draw a typical college football crowd. Most showed up wearing hoodies with Elk Grove Village logos. One public works employee had on his orange work vest. Gac wore an FIU T-shirt, but only to take pictures and troll his friend in Baltimore who attended Toledo.

Ole Miss was represented, as Darren Smith stood near the bar in his Rebels pullover. Smith wasn't in bowl-game withdrawal but came because he knows the bar's owner. He grew up in Elk Grove Village and started college as a golfer at Ole Miss before transferring to Arkansas State, where he played wide receiver on the football team. Like many, Smith didn't know what to make of "Makers Wanted" and Elk Grove Village's bowl sponsorship.

"I f---ing laughed at it, actually," he said. "I thought it was a joke. But good for Elk Grove, I guess. I moved here when I was two years old from Chicago, and I lived in Elk Grove till I was 38 probably, so I'm a longtime Elk Grove guy."

Lunch and curiosity brought longtime Elk Grove Village residents Donna Glade-Tau and Elmer Tau to Friday's event. They watched Friday's game in Bahamas Bowl T-shirts but remained on the fence about the sponsorship.

"I thought it was ridiculous to spend $300,000 for something like that," Donna said of her initial reaction.

"It might be worthwhile," Elmer said, "if we get a few people to move their companies here."

"Hopefully, they will," Donna said. "The people who are watching, they see on the field, 'Makers Wanted, Elk Grove Village,' probably are like, 'Where the hell is that?'"

By now, you might be wondering the same. Where the hell is Elk Grove Village? Why move companies there? How did this all came about?

This isn't a standard suburb. Elk Grove Village's business park, just west of the O'Hare tarmac, is the largest contiguous industrial park in the country, spanning 6 square miles with 62 million square feet of inventory. It takes up about half of the town's overall footprint.

"Our cash cow, our golden goose," said Chris Prochno, a village trustee since 1997. "It [accounts for] 80 percent of our taxes."

Hence, "makers wanted." Johnson said vacancy is down to 2.5 percent, more than a percentage point lower than it's ever been. Elk Grove Village is also building a technology park featured in its Bahamas Bowl commercials.

Before the bowl push, Elk Grove Village advertised its industrial hub on Chicago Cubs broadcasts. But the $300,000 partnership ended after the 2017 season, and shortly after, Johnson, the village's mayor since 1997, got an idea.

He had traveled to his vacation home in Wisconsin, but there wasn't enough snow to snowmobile, nor enough ice for ice fishing. So he watched bowl game after bowl game. During one bowl -- Johnson can't remember which one, although it could have been the Bahamas Bowl -- he summoned his wife, Lorrie.

Craig: "Look at the TV."

Lorrie: "Yeah, another bowl game."

Craig: "No, no, look at that 50-yard line. Picture, 'Makers Wanted Bowl.'"

Lorrie: "You're f---ing nuts."

Craig: "Thank you. That's all I wanted to hear."

After returning from the holidays, Johnson floated the idea to his staff with the village. They provided a G-rated version of Lorrie's response. Undeterred, Johnson pitched his plan to a marketing team that had worked with Elk Grove Village. One marketer encouraged Johnson to keep at it, and so Johnson approached ESPN.

ESPN was excited by the possibility, and late this spring began talking to three bowl games about sponsorship. The Bahamas Bowl, played during the Friday of a holiday weekend in a sun-splashed setting, made the most sense.

Some around town remained skeptical. Johnson tried to ease residents by telling them this wouldn't be a junket for town officials, who would have to pay their own way to the Bahamas if they wanted to attend the game.

The business owners, meanwhile, quickly got on board.

"I was convinced the day we met with the businesses," longtime village trustee Sam Lissner said. "The mayor doesn't stop. He's very aggressive. And he's one of those guys who always says, 'Why not? Why can't we do it?'"

Prochno saw attitudes shift. She remembers the initial chatter at the town rec center, where she works out every morning.

"Are you out of your mind? You spent $400,000 of our money to do this," she recalled at Friday's watch party. "Now, after the media coverage and the time going by, I see some of the same people I just worked out with are here. It's so awesome. We will have markers on the field at the 50-yard line and the 20-yard line, and we will have commercials.

"That kind of exposure for that amount of money -- it's pretty exciting."

The village approved the sponsorship at its July 31 board meeting. Media coverage immediately spiked. A prominent Chicago sports executive soon called Johnson, asking if the village really only paid $300,000 for the sponsorship.

"I asked him, 'What do you think the value is out of this announcement?" Johnson said. "He goes, 'I can tell you right now, and this is conservative, 'You got back in 20 hours between $6 and 8 million in marketing value.'"

While the actual value will determined in the coming months, in-town businesses have celebrated the move. Stern Pinball held a tournament for the participating teams Monday, where each team took home a "Deadpool" or "Guardians of the Galaxy" machine.

"The name gets out there for those who do watch the game," said Debbie Handler, the third generation owner of Elk Grove Bowl, a vintage bowling and billiards center that has no affiliation with the sponsorship. "It's good for the business and good for the village. The [owners] I'm friends with, no one says anything negative. Anything to bring more business to our community is a good thing. Elk Grove, the people who live here, they're fortunate because businesses pay so much of their tax bills. Money is well spent here."

The Bahamas Bowl isn't the first national sporting event linked to Elk Grove Village. From 2006 to 2013, it hosted the Tour of Elk Grove, an internationally recognized cycling race won in 2013 by Italy's Elia Viviani, a 2016 Olympic gold medalist. American star Christian Vande Velde finished second in 2006. The American Dream Classic bowling tournament, where amateurs from around the world competed for six-figure prize money, started at Elk Grove Bowl in the 1980s before moving to Las Vegas. The town also hosts free summer concerts, where Pat Benatar has played (next year's lineup includes Melissa Etheridge).

"I always think big, that's my problem," Johnson said, "because I always feel Elk Grove deserves nothing but the biggest and the best."

The village has until March 1 to decide if it wants to renew its Bahamas Bowl sponsorship for another $300,000. Although a re-up seems likely, Johnson wants to review the marketing data with the board.

Said Gac, "As far as the actual game, I've never seen this game before. But people are talking about Elk Grove, so it looks like a pretty good move."