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Columnist
Will move to Rosemont be catalyst Bandits need to survive?
By John Radtke | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 8/22/2010 10:40 PM

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The plan was a good one, at the time anyway.

Three years ago when the Chicago Bandits moved from Benedictine University in Lisle to Judson University in Elgin, things looked pretty rosy for the fledgling professional fastpitch softball team.

The City of Elgin welcomed Bill Conroy, Bill Sokolis and the Bandits with open arms, and even drew up a plan to have a stadium built on the Spartan Meadows golf course property on the city's west side. The city spent $750,000 to upgrade Judson's softball facility, among other things, and it looked like Elgin was going to be the Bandits' home for years to come.

Now, citing the downturn in the economy as the No. 1 reason, the Bandits have played their last game in Elgin. Many things have transpired as well. The city council's makeup changed, the Bandits didn't draw as they had hoped, and the money dried up.

So now Sokolis, who took over sole ownership of the franchise two years ago, will try greener pastures in Rosemont. The proposed location for the stadium is currently a vacant lot on the northwest corner of Bryn Mawr Avenue and Pearl Street.

"The three years in Elgin were fine but I won't say I wasn't a little disappointed," said Sokolis prior to the Bandits' final home series in Elgin. "We were asked to come there and then we kind of got the rug pulled out from under us."

One thing Sokolis could never understand was the lack of attendance. While travel softball is strong around Elgin, the Bandits played their games at Judson at the same time as summer travel ball tournaments. The demographics of Elgin didn't allow much in the way of the casual fan coming out to Judson, where parking was always an issue. After averaging 1,500 per game in Lisle, the Bandits were hard-pressed to average 600 per night in Elgin.

"We were disappointed in the response for ticket sales," Sokolis said. "We sold out the last three nights but that was because of Jennie Finch's retirement. Why wouldn't people respond like that from the beginning? Why did it take Jennie Finch leaving the game? I wish it would have been like that from the beginning - they probably would have built the stadium."

There were also noise issues in Elgin that Sokolis could never understand.

"The noise thing, for the life of me, I could never figure out," he said. "The city put in the sound system and tested it and then we had the police department out here telling us it's too loud."

While Sokolis and the Bandits leave Elgin disappointed, they don't leave with anything bad to say about Judson.

"The people at Judson have been just great," Sokolis said. "They've been top notch. But Judson was a temporary situation from the start."

In Rosemont, the Bandits will be closer to corporate money, closer to O'Hare International Airport and closer to a cross-section of suburbs to attract fans. If the franchise is going to survive, Rosemont might be the last stop. The possibility of Finch being a visible part owner doesn't hurt either.

"Rosemont, if it would work out, is a great location because it would be the closest the Chicago Bandits would have ever been to Chicago," Sokolis told the Daily Herald in June when the move was announced. "The mayor of Rosemont has the desire to make Rosemont the mini-Chicago, and sports teams help to do that, so he wants us there as bad as we'd like to be there."

Judson will continue to reap the benefits of the Bandits' three years in town. The university keeps a professional quality field, bleachers seating about 1,000 fans, a press box and scoreboard. The university has seen scores of people visit the past three years that may never have done so had the Bandits not come here. Thanks to the updates, Judson has also hosted IHSA supersectional softball games.

But with softball no longer an Olympic sport, and Finch no longer being a marketing avenue as a player, one has to wonder how long the Bandits and the four-team National Pro Fastpitch league can survive, whereever they play.

"The league is fine," Sokolis maintains. "Attendance is up this year and the league is doing fine."

What remains to be seen is if the Chicago market will support a pro softball team. Rosemont will now be the next suburb to find out.