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Exploring the tropical paradise in Illinois that now sponsors the Bahamas Bowl

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An industrial park named after elk put its slogan on a game in the Caribbean. Standard college football behavior.

Photos by YoTuT and Ashley Frillman, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, illustration by SB Nation

We’ve had bowl games with weird sponsors basically since we started playing bowl games. We had the Aviation Bowl in Dayton. The Will Rogers Bowl. The Refrigerator Bowl. We’ve had modern bowls with bizarre sponsors, from lawnmowers to Bitcoin. Hell, even the most regal game of all has done weirdo things — I’m looking at you, Rose Bowl camel race.

Now it’s even weirder.

The Bahamas Bowl, a game in a track stadium in a country that doesn’t really play football, has a new sponsor after the venerable Popeyes bowed out.

But the new sponsor, Makers Wanted, isn’t a fly by night internet company. It isn’t a shady bank or a fried chicken franchise.

It’s a town 1,320 miles away from the Bahamas. Elk Grove Village, a Chicago suburb out by the airport, hopes to drum up business for its industrial park.

Google Maps

Even in a sport that doesn’t make sense ... that really doesn’t make sense, right?

So I drove to Elk Grove to investigate. Surely there’s something tropical there that I’ve missed, which would help connect the sponsor and the bowl.

The weather had warmed up in Chicago, which meant it was in the high 30s with a drizzle, just enough to make you uncomfortable, but not enough to thaw out the snowbanks or conjure the Caribbean.

Even at 11 a.m. on a Thursday, traffic on Interstate 90 slowed to a stop, as much a fixture of Chicagoland as hot dogs and bitching about the Bulls’ management. I had to pay a toll. There were no steel drums. Nobody to offer me a fruity drink. It’s the sort of drive that people go on tropical vacations to get away from.

After about 40 minutes, I reached Elk Grove Village, which looked an awful lot like most other Chicago suburbs: decidedly not tropical.

But maybe those roots were hiding. So I decided to visit a community institution, the building now with the best SEO in town.

The Elk Grove Bowl.

I asked owner Debbie Handler what she thought of Elk Grove’s other bowl.

“From a business perspective, we’re happy to have the village’s name put out there with the hopes of new business coming in.”

But do you wish the game was called the Elk Grove Bowl Bowl?

“Well ... that would mean I’d have to sponsor it. And I don’t have $300,000.”

Fair enough. So what’s the most Caribbean thing about Elk Grove?

After a pause, Debbie offered Rainbow Falls, a local waterpark, adding “but I don’t think there’s any real connection here between the city and the Bahamas, beyond the fact that it’s not a top bowl game, so it’s probably less expensive.”

Debbie sold her own establishment a bit short though. Just down the hall, in the arcade, I found something plenty tropical.

idk this looks pretty tropical to me

I asked Debbie if she planned on watching Elk Grove’s Bahamas Bowl.

“No. It’s on Friday during the day.”

After that bout of journalism, I broke for lunch. Surely Elk Grove should have at least one island-adjacent restaurant, right?

Being pretty close to Chicago, Elk Grove sported (by my count) four hot dog joints, three pierogi restaurants, and a Bulgarian restaurant. There’s plenty of Mexican, Chinese, and American fare.

But anything even kinda like Bahamas? I asked city hall, the local library, and the internet. The closest Popeyes — the prodigal Bahamas Bowl sponsor — was in a neighboring town. All my research pointed to just one place that could sell me a Caribbean-inspired lunch.

Thank you, Buffalo Wild Wings, for the Caribbean Jerk wings.

The economic engine of the town, the force behind sponsoring a bowl game, is its industrial park, the largest in North America.

Elk Grove is trying to get businesses to set up shop near one of the busiest airports in the world. But tying this to college football can be tricky.

If you’re Popeyes, sure. Give fried chicken to the players. That’s easy. If you’re PlayStation and you’re sponsoring the Fiesta Bowl, you just give people PlayStations. If you’re Belk, take the players to Belk.

But if you’re an industrial park, you can’t expect kids to get excited about materials shipping unless they’re huge Sim City fans.

Or unless you bring something cool that gets manufactured there. So Elk Grove is sending pinball to the Bahamas.

Stern Pinball says it’s one of the largest and oldest pinball manufactures in the world. It’s sending four machines for a tournament between FIU and Toledo players and coaches, with the winning team getting its pick between a new Deadpool or Guardians of the Galaxy machine. The losing team gets the other. I was also told that if Elk Grove Village sponsors the game next year, Stern will build a bowl-themed machine.

Zach Sharpe, Stern’s director of marketing (and a world pinball champion), and Gary Stern, the company’s president, gave me a tour of the factory. Plenty of bright lights? Sure.

Anything particularly tropical? Not that I could see. There were machines for bands, movies, and comic book characters, but nothing related to the Bahamas.

I asked what the most tropical thing about the town was. Zach laughed.

“Uh, does Portillos [a hot dog chain] have a seasonal cake shake?”

That left just one person left to talk to. The man behind this entire operation. Mayor Craig Johnson.

The Elk Grove Village Municipal Building

Mayor Johnson was happy to talk, gesturing to framed stories about the sponsorship by USA Today, Forbes, ESPN, and elsewhere.

Elk Grove Village isn’t a total stranger to sports marketing, having spent north of $150,000 to buy ads during Cubs games. But those only broadcast in Chicagoland.

Johnson was watching a bowl with his wife, when he said, “look at that football field. Just picture: Makers Wanted [the tagline for the industrial park] Bowl.”

Her response?

“You’re fucking nuts.”

Johnson added that when he suggested the idea to his staff, “they’re polite to the mayor, but they said basically the same thing my wife said.”

After kicking the tires on several bowl games, like the Hawaii and New Mexico, the village decided on the Bahamas, which fit into the town’s budget and its desired time slot (it worried the Hawaii would be too late at night) and climate.

Johnson said ESPN was excited to work with them.

“We’re unique, and we’re opening up a whole new market of potential sponsors.”

He added that other mayors have reached out to him to ask about the process.

OK, but is there a tropical connection?

Mayor Johnson also laughed and struggled to think of one. After a bit of haggling with his staff, he found a name of a manufacturer that ships to the Caribbean.

So Serious Professional Journalism proves it. It’s funny that Elk Grove Village is sponsoring a game 1,300 miles away.

I have to admit, when I first heard, I thought it was stupid and was prepared just to dunk on it.

But shoot, maybe the mayor was right! Elk Grove has earned substantially more media than it would have from conventional TV spends. It’ll have its town name on a football field and in the record books.

Zach Sharpe added, “Look, I’m an Illinois grad. I’m used to different bowl games, like the MicronPC Bowl or the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco. College bowl games, it doesn’t matter where they are.”

And hey, he’s probably right. The players get to go somewhere warm and fun. And in a world with a TaxSlayer Gator Bowl and Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, what’s so weird about a suburb trying to attract industrial park tenants?

And yes, just to include another fact no sport but college football is weird enough to produce:

The current sponsor of the Bahamas Bowl has elk.