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Volume 21 No. 2
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Marketing executives take experience, competition of professional sports back to school

When Matt Wszolek was a sales and marketing executive with the Chicago Cubs, he wore his emotions on the flagpole in front of his house.

If the University of Illinois flag was flying, it meant the Illini had won their most recent football or basketball game. If it wasn’t, Wszolek was mourning a loss.

Now that flag means a little more to him. It represents not just his alma mater, but also his employer. Wszolek is one of a growing number of sports executives who have taken what they’ve learned in the marketing of professional teams to the college ranks. He spent nearly three years in sales and promotions with the Cubs before becoming associate director of development and corporate partnerships in the Illini’s satellite office in Chicago.

In that same Chicagoland market, Northwestern employs Mike Polisky as senior associate athletics director for external affairs. Polisky marketed and ran Chicago franchises in the Arena Football League and the American Hockey League before joining the Wildcats as their chief marketer last year.

There are other examples around the country. West Virginia AD Oliver Luck was president of the MLS Houston Dynamo. Steve Patterson, a former NBA executive with the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers, was hired this summer as the new COO for Arizona State athletics.

“I think what you’re seeing is that a lot of universities are similarly positioned, in terms of facing a lot of competition for the dollars in the marketplace,” said Polisky, an Iowa alum who ran the AFL’s Chicago Rush and the AHL’s Chicago Wolves before going to Northwestern. “You can get into a mode of sitting back and letting things happen or you can get more aggressive and compete. For me, my background was especially appropriate because there are 30-some professional and collegiate teams in the Chicagoland area, there are great cultural and entertainment options — there’s a heck of a lot of competition.”

For Wszolek, he entered the college space at Illinois last year with the perception that marketers were sometimes handcuffed with restrictions. What he found, instead, was “fertile ground.”

“There’s this misnomer that you have all of this bureaucracy, but really, I’m sitting down with companies basically with a blank sheet of paper,” Wszolek said. “You want in-stadium, traditional media, social media, activation that targets the student population, activation aimed at alumni. … There is so much tailoring you can do, and that’s huge in this day and age of customization.”

Unlike most schools that outsource their multimedia and marketing rights — Northwestern partners with Learfield Sports — the Illini handle all of their marketing and sponsorships in-house. That puts Wszolek on the front lines in Chicago against a slew of competitors. But what he learned with the Cubs, who have precious little signage available in Wrigley Field compared with most MLB teams, is to do more with less. That meant developing promotional programs and marketplace activation that originated outside of Wrigley, away from the three-hour baseball game.

Similarly, Wszolek has tried to uncover marketing opportunities at Illinois, where student athletes are off-limits and stadium signage is limited, that might not be traditional in nature.

“Think about what you can do with a sweepstakes winner boarding a basketball team charter to fly to Cancun for a tournament with the team,” he said of a concept he’s trying to implement at Illinois. “There’s huge value there, and there are all kinds of experiential opportunities that you can showcase with the Illinois ‘I’ on them.”