Big Ten rivals compete for Chicago’s attention
It’s a mid-September afternoon inside Northwestern University’s athletic department, and staff members are throwing themselves an impromptu party after posting ticket sales marks not seen since the football team went to the Rose Bowl in 1996.
Having success in a competitive market like Chicago is no easy task. Northwestern is competing for attention, and dollars, against some 30 other professional and minor league teams and schools all located within 90 miles of the city. Jim Phillips, who came to NU as athletic director in 2008, has aggressively worked to boost the school’s athletic profile.
“We are in a crowded market,” Phillips said from his office overlooking the football team’s practice field. “The key was to begin to act and think of ourselves as a professional sports organization.”
The schools gained exposure for their nationally televised game at Wrigley Field last year.
“From my view, there is a sense that we are underbranded in Chicago,” said Mike Thomas, the newly hired athletic director at Illinois. “In the past, it hasn’t been a priority.”
So as the two schools look ahead to Saturday, when their football teams meet in Champaign, Ill., for their annual football rivalry game, both are looking at their state’s prime market, as well. And while their branding strategies and their plans for attacking the Chicago market are different, the goal of the two schools is the same: more local relevance — and revenue.
The Illini’s Chicago-based marketing effort will look to draw on the school’s massive local alumni base for added ticket, merchandise and sponsorship sales. Northwestern’s desired marketing success is pinned on attracting fans and sponsors from far beyond its smaller Chicago alumni base.
Both schools profited in publicity from last year’s nationally hyped football game at Wrigley Field, a revenue-enhancing home game for Northwestern but a touchstone of exposure for both programs. ESPN’s “College GameDay” did its traveling road show from outside the ballpark, and both the talk and sight of a football field on Wrigley’s grounds drew national coverage — including when tight quarters forced a rules adjustment that resulted in the game being played toward only one end zone.
The differences in the two schools are as wide as the 150 miles separating their campuses.
Illinois is the state’s largest public university, with 44,000 undergraduates, and it has a giant, 220,000-member Chicago-area alumni base. Of those 220,000 alumni, more than 65 percent earn more than $100,000 annually. Eighty-five percent of the school’s 44,000 students are from the Chicago area, according to Illinois officials.
Illinois’ Thomas and Northwestern’s Phillips are each aiming to tap Chicago as a revenue source.
That’s why Northwestern, also lacking the draw from consistent success in major college sports — NU is one of only a handful of schools never to have played in the NCAA basketball tournament — has spent the past year pitching itself as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team,” the tag line of a seven-figure print, radio and billboard marketing campaign.
To draw more interest among casual fans, the school is beefing up its nonconference football schedule. Home-and-home games with Notre Dame, California and Stanford are planned for future seasons. It also has invested heavily in overhauling its athletic department as it continues a strategic effort to attract more revenue.
Previously, the athletic department marketed itself mostly by sitting back and waiting for the phone to ring in its sales offices.
“It was more of an operational approach,” Phillips said.
Northwestern’s strategy now includes not only its “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” marketing effort, but also a major investment in the athletic department’s external strategy that has brought forth the hiring of 16 new full-time staff members, including Mike Polisky, senior associate athletics director for external affairs, who came on board in 2009 to bolster the branding effort. The new hires also include eight additional season-ticket sales representatives and two marketing staffers for a total of 30 employees working on the department’s external business efforts.
Polisky, who was president of the AHL’s Chicago Wolves and AFL’s Chicago Rush before joining NU, had previously never worked in a college athletic department — exactly the qualities Phillips was looking for as he pushed to hire someone familiar with grinding out sales in the Chicago market.
The school earlier this year signed both head football coach Pat Fitzgerald (a former NU player) and Phillips to deals through 2020, signaling its commitment to stability in the athletic department. Also due shortly is a study by sports facilities architect Populous that will recommend improvements and changes to NU’s facilities.
“The numbers don’t lie, and the alumni numbers are never going to change,” Phillips said. “We can’t rely on our alumni base. We want to latch on to folks with interest in sports. We are in their backyard.”
While Northwestern, as a private school, does not make public its specific athletic department finances, it had a balanced athletic budget of $48.9 million in 2010, according to U.S. Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics Data Analysis. School officials said combined season tickets from the football and basketball programs have increased about 55 percent in the past year. Attendance last year at 47,000-seat Ryan Field rose to 36,000 from 24,000, the largest same-stadium growth in the NCAA, according to school officials.
Sponsorship revenue more than doubled in the past year, with NU now having deals with about 50 sponsors.
Despite those gains, Phillips is not about to ease his push to raise NU’s athletic department
Northwestern points to its Chicago proximity, while Illinois enjoys a large Windy City fan base.
“There are no quick fixes,” Phillips said. “It is about doing it over a long period of time.”
Illinois is working to build from an athletic budget that for 2011-12 reached $70 million. While Thomas would not disclose specifics, he said he expects the Illini’s Chicago campaign to be rolled out “sooner rather than later.”
The university recently hired former Chicago Cubs executive Matt Wszolek for the newly created position of associate director of development and corporate partnerships. Wszolek works out of Illinois’ downtown Chicago satellite offices and will be looking to add to the school’s current total of about 60 athletic department sponsors. About half of those partners have a Chicago presence.
Illinois does not have a deal with an outside agency like NU’s deal with Learfield, but whether the school should bring in an agency is a subject of review, said Thomas, who came to Illinois last month from the University of Cincinnati, where he had been AD since 2005.
Beyond any direct marketing efforts, the Illini this winter will again look for a Chicago bump through the men’s basketball team. Illinois hosts UNLV on Dec. 17 at the United Center in what has become an annual nonconference effort for the Illini — hosting a school in Chicago in hopes of appealing to alumni and other fans in the major market.
“Our messaging,” Wszolek said, “is that we are all Illini. We are not just a Champaign brand.”