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Marketing Blitz Has Raised Profile of NU Athletics

Chicago Sun-Times, April 11, 2011

By Tina Akouris

Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips had to work fast.

He had decided to hire former Wolves president Mike Polisky last June to be the first marketing chief in the athletic department when he realized he needed to come up with a slogan for the new campaign. It had to be short, catchy and memorable, and there wasn’t a lot of time.

Out of a hurried meeting, the slogan “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” was born. About eight months after the campaign started, the phrase resonates as belonging to the Wildcats, and the numbers prove the campaign has boosted interest and ticket sales.

“They’ve drawn the lines of battle,” said Ed O’Hara, senior partner of SME Branding in New York City. “They want to take the market share away [from Illinois and Notre Dame]. It’s really smart and short and memorable. If they didn’t do something this bold and big, they won’t take the market share from Illinois and everyone else.”

The Chicago sports market is crowded with pro options and large alumni bases for Illinois and Notre Dame. But now that the basketball season is over, Phillips and Polisky can look at these numbers:

  • NU had a 51 percent increase in football attendance, the second-highest jump nationwide among Division I schools behind Louisville.
  • Two days after the Wildcats lost the TicketCity Bowl to Texas Tech on Jan. 1, the football ticket office started processing season-ticket orders.
  • Season-ticket sales in basketball were up 25 percent, and season-ticket orders for the 2011-12 season have started trickling in well ahead of schedule.

“We’ve done really well from a revenue perspective from a football standpoint and a basketball standpoint,” Polisky said. “Because of the advertising and the restructuring of the department, we have a new media-rights partner [Learfield Sports] that is spending 300 percent more with us than our previous one. Everything saw a bump [in revenue] because we started this.”

Phillips credited a football team that finished 7-6 and made NU’s third consecutive bowl appearance and a men’s basketball team that won 20 games for a second consecutive season as boosts to the first-year campaign.

“It has resonated with the area, and people have come out to Welsh-Ryan Arena and Ryan Field in bigger numbers than they have in a long time,” Phillips said. “There are no quick fixes, and you can’t do it overnight. . . . We want those numbers to grow so sellouts are expected.”

While the campaign was successful from a marketing standpoint, an argument can be made that there was some oversaturation.

“Listening to AM radio, [the ads were] on different stations, and at some point I thought, ‘Wow, I’m getting hit over the head with this,’ ” said Jim Andrews, senior vice president of IEG, a sports-marketing firm in Chicago. “As a consumer, you say, ‘I’ve heard this every day now for the last few months.’ But that’s what you need to do in a lot of cases.

“What will help them in the long run is to field competitive teams in football and men’s basketball. There is room to improve there, and if they get a team to qualify for [the NCAA] tournament, that will help.”

NU hadn’t had a division in its athletic department solely for marketing until this school year. Polisky and his staff jumped in full throttle, with ads on seven billboards across the Chicago area in addition to spots on radio and print ads in newspapers.

“[Chicago] isn’t a normal college town,” Polisky said. “In Madison, you think of Wisconsin; in Ann Arbor, you think of Michigan. We’re not one of those college towns, and we need to compete in the way the major-league teams in town do. We have to compete as a professional property. We made sure people saw Northwestern in a different way.”