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Chicago Sports Bars' Big Ten Football Hustle

Duffy’s Tavern & Grille

Photograph by Ryan Lowry for Bloomberg Businessweek

Duffy’s Tavern & Grille

Andrea Abel is celebrating her 30th birthday at Chicago’s Kirkwood Bar & Grill with more than 200 friends. She doesn’t know them all by name, but no matter: Like Abel, they’re all there to root for their beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers. “For the last five years, I’ve been watching all the football games here,” says Abel, a 2006 graduate in a black-and-red Husker T-shirt and red-and-white beads.

Kirkwood, which most days feels like any North Side yuppie haven with high-top tables and fish tacos, is one of a growing number of Chicago bars identifying with Big Ten sports teams. Most bar owners aren’t fans (establishments often switch school allegiances from season to season)—they’re just trying to lure the twentysomething college football nuts who move to the city seeking jobs, spouses, and hangovers.

Brothers Tom and Phil Piazza own five bars that market themselves as homes away from home for graduates of Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame. Tom, a 50-year-old Loyola University Chicago alumnus, says his only true passion is for the NFL’s Chicago Bears. One of his pubs can take in as much as $15,000 on a busy fall Saturday.

For the honor of hosting Michigan State fans, Jon Mossberger and his three partners in Stretch Bar & Grill in Wrigleyville donate $1,000 to the alumni club scholarship fund. This sort of quid pro quo is common. Kirkwood gave $500 to Chicagoans for Nebraska, an alumni club.

Fewer than 1,500 Nebraska graduates live in Chicago, but they’re known for showing up whether their team is good or lousy. To keep them coming, “you’ve got to think of the little details,” says Kirkwood’s manager, Joel Sanchez. Kirkwood imports Nebraska favorites such as Valentino’s pizza and Runza meat pies. Ex-Husker stars Tommie Frazier and Johnny Rodgers have made appearances.

By the time the Huskers blow a 21-3 lead to lose to UCLA, Kirkwood has sold more than 100 burgers,seven kegs of beer, and five gallons of a Nebraska specialty, Elk Creek Water. “Nebraska people will show up three, four, five hours before the game and start drinking,” Sanchez says. “Everybody’s in a good mood all day and, when the game starts, it’s magical.”

Will’s Northwoods Inn

Will’s Northwoods Inn

3030 N. Racine Ave.

Owner Jon Bunge modeled Will’s, a rare, true-to-its-roots bar, on the rustic taverns of his native Wisconsin. Badgers eat bratwursts and sip Leinenkugel’s beer surrounded by knotty pine walls, antler chandeliers, and a stuffed snapping turtle that lunges from a plaque. Customers win “Bucky Badger” T-shirts and other prizes at halftime raffles. On Sundays, fans in Green Bay Packers attire line up before the 9:30 a.m. opening.

Kirkwood Bar & Grill

Kirkwood Bar & Grill

2934 N. Sheffield Ave.

Nebraska fans cheer Cornhusker games on 31 TVs while drinking Elk Creek Water, a concoction of cheap gin, vodka, and juice served in a Mason jar. When the Huskers score, 18 speakers blast There Is No Place Like Nebraska. Kirkwood is one of seven bars—four with college affiliations—run by Four Corners Tavern Group. It also hosts Indiana basketball games: Last year a Hoosier fan stabbed an inflated Nebraska Lil’ Red mascot.

Duffy’s Tavern & Grille

420½ W. Diversey Pkwy.

On football Saturdays, Duffy’s is covered in Michigan’s maize and blue, and a man in a wolverine costume urges the crowd to chug beers while The Victors plays. “People want their full sound, the fight songs,” says co-owner Tom Piazza. “We give it to them.” He gives the same to fans of archrival Ohio State at another of his bars, McGee’s Tavern & Grille, 1½ miles away. “It’s business,” he says.

Sparty Bombs at Stretch Bar & Grill

Stretch Bar & Grill

3485 N. Clark St.

Five-dollar Sparty Bombs (Bacardi Grand Melón, Red Bull, Sprite, blue curaçao, and sour melon liqueur) are a favorite of the Michigan State fans at Stretch. Green-and-white balloons are everywhere, and waitresses wear “Go Green Go White” T-shirts. None of Stretch’s managing partners attended MSU, but the bar is designated for “game watches” by the local alumni club. Are they fans? Partner Jon Mossberger says, “I have to be.”

Gruley is a reporter-at-large for Bloomberg News in Chicago.

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