GAMEDAY: The marketing battle for Chicago

Colin Becht

Northwestern fired the first shot last year. This year, Illinois has fired back.

Chicago’s Big Ten Team, meet the king of Chicago. It’s a marketing war, ladies and gentlemen.

“We need to be the king of the state,” Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas told reporters after his introductory press conference in August. “We need to be the king of Chicago. We need to have a real presence there.”

That goal runs right up against NU’s. The school’s athletic department has spent the past year marketing itself as Chicago’s closest option for big time collegiate sports.

“That’s a statement that can’t be argued,” athletic director Jim Phillips said of the Chicago’s Big Ten Team slogan. “We’re the closest school to Chicago.”

The problem for NU is, proximity aside, Chicago hardly bleeds purple. Due to its much smaller student body, NU has the second fewest alumni living in Chicagoland of any Big Ten school.

“They have a much stronger alumni base as far as the numbers of alums,” Phillips said of Illinois.

NU, however, hopes that it can overcome those odds by latching on to the casual college football fan living away from his or her alma mater.

“We’re trying to create interest and enthusiasm in the Chicagoland market for people to come up to Evanston to see a football, basketball or any of our sports teams play,” Phillips said. “Maybe they have an allegiance to a school, maybe they don’t.”

While NU has to overcome its school allegiances to build its fanbase, Illinois looks to overcome the physical gap between its Champaign location and Chicago, a distance of 138 miles. According to coach Pat Fitzgerald, that distance eliminates the Illini from the marketing game.

“We’re the only school in the Chicagoland area, so we don’t have anything to prove with that,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re Chicago’s Big Ten Team. It’s pretty simple, not Central Illinois’s Big Ten Team.”

With its one-year head start in corralling Chicago’s support, NU has already seen the effects of gaining even a small sliver of the market of the United States’ third largest city.

The Cats saw the second largest increase in attendance at football games for the 2010 season among Division I schools. NU’s attendance rose from an average of 24,190 in 2009 to 36,449 last season. Even without the Wrigleyville Classic, which drew more than 40,000 fans, NU’s attendance still increased by an average of 11,337 for its five games at Ryan Field, the fourth-largest increase in the country.

Attendance continues to grow this year with more than 28,000 fans attending the Cats’ first home game against Eastern Illinois, an increase of nearly 3,000 over last year’s home opener against Illinois State.

“The response has been tremendous,” Phillips said. “It will be over a period of time when we’ll be able to judge whether this was a successful marketing campaign or not. But the early signs have shown us over the last 12 or 18 months that it has been really successful.”

Illinois’ attempts to cut into NU’s new market adds another layer to a rivalry that has grown in intensity recently as both schools have developed better products on the field. The schools have engaged in a small war of words since the end of last year’s contest, adding hostility to the Land of Lincoln Trophy game.

After the Illini ran over the Cats at Wrigley Field last year in a 48-27 victory, then-junior linebacker Martez Wilson declared that Illinois “showed who was Chicago’s Big Ten Team.”

“If I’m not mistaken, (the phrase ‘Chicago’s Big Ten Team’ is) trademarked for Northwestern,” Fitzgerald said this Monday. “Now that he’s an NFL player, maybe we can ask for some trademark infringements there.”

Recently, Illinois expressed some displeasure at supposed comments by Fitzgerald implying that NU has higher character standards for its players.

“They (say they) don’t recruit our type of guys,” Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino told reporters. “That’s pretty much calling our guys something. That would irritate me. That’s pretty much calling you, what? I don’t know. That’s calling you something. Read between the lines.”

The hiccup in Petrino’s disconcertion is that an Internet search revealed no record of Fitzgerald ever saying anything along those lines.

“I have no idea what they’re talking about,” Fitzgerald told reporters on Wednesday. “I don’t know if I’ve said anything different any time. We recruit for our fit, and I think we know exactly what that is.”

Regardless of what Fitzgerald actually said, the alleged comments have served to add to the animosity between the Illini and the Cats.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” Phillips said of the heated tension between the schools. “Aren’t rivalries what people enjoy about sports? Isn’t that what we’re trying to create, more excitement and enthusiasm?”

While Phillips said the rivalry might increase anticipation for Saturday’s game, he and his counterpart, Thomas, aren’t letting their conflicting goals of Chicago dominance sever their friendly ties.

“I have nothing but the highest regard for Mike,” said Phillips, who became close with Thomas when they were both athletic directors in the Mid-American Conference. “It’s not about Northwestern versus Illinois and it’s not about Jim Phillips versus Mike Thomas. It’s really two great schools that are trying to come into Chicago and attract fans.”

Phillips even said NU’s and Illinois’ marketing goals aren’t mutually exclusive.

“Truthfully, I don’t think we’re competing for the same people,” Phillips said. “They’re two different institutions that are trying to attract two different markets even though they end up being in the Chicagoland area.”

Still, both schools’ promotion pushes rely on success on the field, so the next shot in the Chicago marketing battle will be fired on the field Saturday.

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