CHICAGO — Chad Bruner is a huge football fan. One day last December, he was sitting in a big leather chair in his Oklahoma City home when the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl caught his attention.
It wasn’t anything about the play on the field. Looking back, Bruner couldn’t even remember which schools were in the game. But a mention of the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove Village sent the real estate project manager to the internet to learn more.
“You’re always looking for places that are business friendly,” said Bruner, who works for Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores. “The sponsorship opens the door into reading the article and you get more information as far as what they were trying to do. That really kind of just showed us that’s a place that you can probably go and get some business done.”
Love’s wanted to build a store and fueling station near O’Hare International Airport, and Elk Grove offered a prime location. Months of talks led to Tuesday night’s announcement of plans for a 7,600 square-foot facility that the village says could generate millions of dollars in sales tax revenue in the next few years.
While the concept still needs to work its way through the permit process, it’s quite the return on one of the most creative investments in a sports property in recent years. Elk Grove Village generated headlines across the country when it became the first non-tourist municipality to sponsor a bowl, but the agreement with Love’s was beyond even the considerable imagination of Mayor Craig Johnson.
“I never thought we’d get a Point A to Point B like we did with Love’s. Never thought that would happen,” Johnson told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
Johnson came up with the idea of bowl sponsorship while he was in Wisconsin a couple winters ago. Elk Village had been advertising on Chicago Cubs broadcasts, but it stepped back because of pricing and was looking for something new.
Johnson was watching a bowl game on TV when it came to him. He brought the idea up to his wife, Lorrie, who asked if he was crazy. Then he broached the possibility with his staff at a January 2018 meeting, and the group delicately echoed his wife’s assessment.
Johnson was ready to drop the idea altogether if a meeting with David Knickerbocker and the village’s marketing people went the same way, but it went in a different direction.
“They come in, they sit down, I start floating the idea by them and their head guy Dave goes ‘Mayor, can I talk to you in the hallway for a second?'” Johnson recalled. “I said ‘Sure.’ So I get up, I go out in the hallway and he goes ‘Mayor, this is gold.'”
With some help from 4FRONT, a sports marketing company, Johnson and Elk Grove settled on a $300,000 deal with the ESPN-owned Bahamas Bowl in Nassau. The village also considered the Hawaii Bowl and New Mexico Bowl. They used “Makers Wanted” in the bowl title as part of a campaign to promote a local industrial park.
Long before FIU beat Toledo 35-32 in the Dec. 21 game, Elk Grove had already won. The July 31 announcement of the deal alone generated tons of free publicity for the village.
Chicago Blackhawks president John McDonough, a longtime family friend of the Johnsons, called the mayor the day after they went public with the sponsorship.
“‘Unbelievable,’ he goes. ‘I got to win the Stanley Cup to get anywhere near the coverage you’re getting right now. Congratulations,'” Johnson said of the conversation. “It just took off like wildfire.”
When Johnson went to the game, a Bahamas tourism official and ESPN thanked him for the free publicity. Elk Village decided to pick its option for sponsoring the bowl again this year.
While Johnson faced some initial criticism about the deal, he said he doesn’t feel vindicated by its success.
“I had faith in what we were doing,” he said, “and I’m kind of known for doing kind of different things. You’ve got to think outside of the box, because if you do everything cookie cutter, no one ever notices.”
Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap
More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Jay Cohen, The Associated Press