Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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NU: Chicago’s Team?

Last year’s game between Northwestern and Wisconsin figured to be a good one. The Wildcats came in with a 7-4 record, and on the verge of a New Year’s Day bowl game, against the No. 17-ranked team in the country.

Sure enough, the game was a classic, with NU securing a 33-31 win on a last-minute pick by cornerback Jordan Mabin. The win was huge, placing the Cats in the Outback Bowl ahead of the Badgers.

Yet despite the intrigue of the game, only 32,150 witnessed the contest at Ryan Field, which was still the largest crowd of the season.

Ryan Field seats 47,130, the smallest stadium in the Big Ten. Sellouts are a rarity — the last time was against Ohio State in 2008, with the stadium filled mostly by the Buckeye faithful.

Even after an Alamo Bowl appearance in 2008 the year before, NU’s attendance decreased last season. After averaging 28,590 fans per game in 2008, the Cats averaged just 24,190 a game in 2009.

This convinced NU Athletic Director Jim Phillips that the program needed to do more to draw fans, leading to the July 29 announcement that NU was creating its first-ever marketing campaign.

“The goal is to create a brand awareness that is obviously identifiable with Northwestern athletics,” Phillips said. “The timing is such that we can ebb and flow like we have been in years past where attendance kind of goes up and down a bit, or we could take a really strategic approach for the first time.”


Phillips’ ties to NU started at a young age, as the Chicago native attended games “religiously” in his childhood.

His career eventually led him back to Evanston. After working at Illinois, Arizona State, Tennessee and Notre Dame, he took the athletics director position at Northern Illinois. There he coordinated multiple television appearances, and a matchup against Iowa at Soldier Field that sold out in less than a week.

Phillips was named to the same position at NU in April 2008 and immediately went to work to improve the athletics department.

“We were going through, interviewing our director of athletics candidates, and (Phillips) really felt that a marketing campaign was what we needed,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Under his leadership and then President (Morton) Schapiro buying in and the trustees, we’ve really taken a step.”

Phillips started by scheduling a pair of games in Chicago. In 2009, NU’s baseball team defeated Notre Dame 5-1 in front of more than 2,000 fans at U.S. Cellular Field, the home of the Chicago White Sox.

About a year later, Phillips sewed up a bigger game in Chicago’s other MLB stadium. NU and the Chicago Cubs announced in April that the Cats would host Illinois at Wrigley Field for a regular-season football matchup in November.

Maybe not surprisingly, NU announced a new Chicagoland marketing campaign just three months later.

“I don’t think there’s a better program to emulate and better people to emulate than our young men,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a whole package and I think if you’re a young man growing up in Chicago, you should want to be a Wildcat.”


Considering the brand of football NU plays, it’s surprising that the Cats have had so much trouble drawing fans.

The team generally plays an entertaining style of football with a pass-heavy spread offense. In the past decade, several quarterbacks have put up remarkable numbers as part of the NU offense, including Zak Kustok, Brett Basanez, C.J. Bachér, Mike Kafka and now Dan Persa. Add to that the number of close games the Cats have been involved in ­- they’re nicknamed the Cardiac Cats for a reason – and seemingly the school would be a magnet for sports enthusiasts.

“It’s exciting football,” senior defensive tackle Corbin Bryant said. “We go out there every week and put on a show for the fans.”

Phillips said the program’s history factors into the attendance woes. NU football doesn’t have a history like many of its counterparts in the Big Ten.

The modern glory years of NU football started just 15 years ago, when the Cats made their miraculous trip to the Rose Bowl.

“I’ve thought about that,” Phillips said. “I’ve thought about. ‘Is it priced right? Is it accessible?’ and I would just tell you that we don’t have the history of maybe some other schools.”

Playing close to Chicago has proven to be a double-edged sword for the Cats. On one hand, NU has millions of people at its fingertips. On the other, Chicago has plenty of other entertainment options, including about 30 other sports teams, as estimated by Phillips.

“This isn’t Ann Arbor, Madison, Iowa City, East Lansing where you say the city and it basically comes with the university,” said Mike Polisky, senior associate athletics director for external affairs. “It’s a ton of competition, and we have to compete from a business standpoint.”

Polisky himself is part of this marketing push, hired by Phillips over the summer to spearhead the campaign.


As the Cats emerged out of the tunnel in their home opener against Illinois State, the effects of the marketing campaign were clear. A fireworks display greeted them, signaling a step toward the big leagues.

“We’re changing our gameday experience,” Polisky said. “We have our work cut out for us but every single game ticket holder, we’re going to go after them hard and make sure they have a great time and are going to come back year after year.”

NU currently has seven full-time billboards up in the Chicago area, emphasizing that the Cats are “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” with a number for people to call for tickets. The University is also sponsoring various radio shows and running advertisements in major local media outlets.

“It’s pretty clear that Northwestern’s reputation internationally from an academic perspective is just incredible, and what we need to do is match that from an athletic standpoint,” Polisky said. “The university… (has) really decided to get behind and start supporting with the appropriate investment and getting people to do the job in the right way.”

Other aspects have been less visible. This summer, NU launched a full-time ticket sales department for the first time in university history. Staffers spend their days making phone calls, selling tickets and listening to what people want out of their gameday experience.

“We’ve never had a sales staff devoted to selling every single day, ” Phillips said. “And we never had a staff that was customer service-oriented, meaning they’re calling the customers and asking them ‘How are you enjoying it?'”


With a smaller student population and alumni base, it makes sense that NU could have trouble finding butts to put in seats.

NU is by far the smallest school in the Big Ten with just 8,497 undergraduates. The next smallest school is Nebraska with 18,955, and the largest is Penn State. With 38,630 undergraduate students, Penn State has more than four times as many students as NU.

According to NU athletic department staffers, the school has the second-smallest alumni base in the Chicagoland area, behind only Penn State.

NU’s unusual school schedule also hurts attendance. It’s particularly difficult to fill the seats when NU students have yet to return to school.

“When we don’t have students, it kills us,” Phillips said. “That’s what makes a college event, the students.”

The intent of this marketing campaign is to move beyond this traditional fan base for NU.

“We have to get the college sports fan interested in Northwestern and adopting Northwestern as their team,” Phillips said. “Maybe it’s their second-favorite team if they went to another Big Ten school, but all in all, it’s about creating an awareness and elevating our brand, filling the stadium, more corporate sponsorships, more T
V appearances, more philanthropic dollars.”

Phillips said it’s clear that NU is “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.”

Although one might expect Illinois to bristle at NU’s recent marketing strides, Fighting Illini coach Ron Zook said he understands why NU would launch such a campaign.

“If I was Northwestern, I’d be doing the same thing,” Zook said. “Northwestern’s had good success so they have every reason and right to do something like that, but on the same token, we got to feel the same way because we have the most alumni in this town. We got to take care of business on the winning side. It’s big enough for both of us to claim.”

First, NU might need to remind some people where the university is actually located.

“We rep Champaign, Illinois,” Fighting Illini defensive lineman Clay Nurse said. “That’s our campus town. I don’t know where Northwestern is. I think they’re in Chicago, but we’re in Champaign and that’s where we’re going to rep.”

For any matter, NU is much closer to downtown Chicago than any another Big Ten program.

“You don’t have to drive two-and-a-half-hours to go see Big Ten football,” Phillips said. “You drive ten minutes to go see football.”

But can NU convince Chicago sports fans to make the short trip to Evanston?

“The football fans in the area are quite aware of the accomplishments from coach Walker to coach Fitzgerald and everything the program is doing,” Polisky said. “We’re a little bit of a secret in the Chicago marketplace, and we endeavor to make sure that the secret is no longer.”


Even before the Wildcats hosted their first game, Bryant, a Chicago native, and a couple teammates had their own booth at Taste of Chicago on the lakefront.

“There were a lot of people there giving their support, asking for autographs, and for the schedule,” Bryant said. “Now, we had a couple strong years back-to-back. A lot of people know about us. I’m from the city and I talk to a lot of guys about our program and they’re always really excited about it … there’s definitely a buzz around the city.”

That was followed by “Meet the Team” night at Ryan Field, where more than 1,000 fans packed the Randy Walker Terrace to hear Fitzgerald and Phillips speak.

The best sign of all might have been the large crowd that filled Ryan Field for the home opener against Illinois State. Despite rainy weather, a Football Championship Subdivision opponent, and students not yet back on campus, more than 25,000 tickets were sold, a 43% increase from last season’s home opener against Towson.

Amazingly, NU sold more tickets to a Sept. 11 game against Illinois State than it did to all but two games last season.

“Our students were awesome Saturday, ” Fitzgerald said. “We had a ton come back, I don’t know if they were from out of town. We hear them, we appreciate them, and that home stadium, when full, it’s a great home field advantage.”

According to Polisky, season tickets sales are up 40% this season with a few more requests still trickling in. But how many fans purchased season tickets just to get access to the Wrigley game, and can the team get these fans to buy again in future seasons?

“We got an injection of new season ticket holders because of the Wrigley game,” Phillips said. “I know that’s going to be the case. My hope is that they enjoy what they saw, that they enjoy the product, that they enjoy coming to Ryan Field and so they’ll want to continue to stay with us.”


It’s not impossible to fill Ryan Field. In the years following NU’s 1995 journey to the Rose Bowl, the Cats regularly averaged more than 40,000 fans a game.

“It was electric,” Fitzgerald said. “It was unbelievable. That’s what you dream of as a college football player especially as a defensive player on third down and you couldn’t communicate verbally, everything had to be hand signals because it was so fricking loud.”

Previous sellouts at Ryan Field give Phillips reason to believe.

“That does give me great hope,” Phillips said. “If it was done before, even if it was a short-lived success, there’s a chance to do that on a more consistent base and that’s where this whole plan is built. There’s no quick fixes.”

Phillips hopes to create a solid foundation for years to come.

“It can’t be just Northwestern alums,” he said. “It’s got to be college sports fans. It’s got to be families, it’s got to be groups. There’s a lot of ways to get to it.”

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NU: Chicago’s Team?