Northwestern needs buzz from deal with Cubs

Ricketts, Fitzgerald on benefits of NU-Cubs partnership

Northwestern needs buzz from deal with Cubs
February 5, 2013, 8:45 pm
Share This Post

For the last few years, Northwestern has worked to fashion itself as Chicago’s Big Ten team -- a marketing slogan that can be found sprinkled across the nation’s third-largest city. A five-year deal to play football at Wrigley Field, which the school’s athletic department and the Cubs announced Tuesday, is another step in the school's plan to win over fans in Chicago.

Northwestern certainly is cognizant of its current position, one that doesn’t compare to the behemoth fanbases of conference partners Ohio State and Michigan.

“We'll always be the tiny private school in the Big Ten, and we'll always have 8,000 undergraduate students,” athletic director Jim Phillips said Tuesday.

That’s the challenge for Northwestern -- how does a school with a small student and alumni base build a larger fanbase?

“There are so many people in the Chicagoland marketplace that don't have their emotional attachment, and we want them to have their first experience than us,” Northwestern deputy director of athletics for external affairs Mike Polisky explained. “And then, if they get in the school -- which very few people can -- good for them, real good for them. But if they don't, it's okay for them to have us as their second favorite team down the road.”

The numbers aren’t favorable for Northwestern, although the school says there's promise in them. In 2011, the New York Times’ Nate Silver showed Northwestern had the fewest number of fans in the Big Ten -- although the addition of Maryland, which was ranked two spots lower, to the conference would pull Northwestern out of last place.

Only Penn State has fewer alumni among Big Ten schools in the Chicagoland area, and that’s not even considering Notre Dame -- which claims Chicago as its second-largest TV market. But the school says its Chicago fanbase increased by 49 percent from 2008-2012, and thinks continued gains are forthcoming thanks to its partnership with the Cubs.

“We have to do innovative things, we have to do creative things,” Phillips said. “It's not going to be, well let's go get the Northwestern students and graduates back and cheer for the alma mater. We need to find and identify and continue to work in Chicago and ask people that are Chicago sports fans to adopt Northwestern.”

While scheduling football games at Wrigley Field is a nice concept, the success of Pat Fitzgerald’s team has an far greater impact on growing the fan base. Northwestern has won 40 games over the past five seasons -- that’s more than Auburn and Michigan, among plenty of other teams -- and won its first bowl game since 1948 on New Year’s Day.

Phillips said football season ticket sales are up 80 percent and corporate sponsorships have quadrupled in the last two years. All those numbers are part of the equation for Northwestern, one they’ll closely track once football returns to Wrigley Field.

The deal between Northwestern and the Cubs calls for five football games to be played at Wrigley Field, with the first coming in November of 2014. Northwestern baseball and women’s lacrosse will play on Clark and Addison in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and could return for future games along with men’s or women’s soccer.

Football at Wrigley Field didn’t completely work when Northwestern played Illinois in 2010, although both the Cubs and Northwestern are confident renovations to the stadium will alleviate concerns about playing another contest there. Northwestern and the Cubs had this partnership in place for a little while, but waited until after renovation plans were released in January to announce it.

Northwestern’s hope is that Tuesday’s announcement can be the start of a major paradigm shift in the Chicago sports landscape, one which gives the school a solid foothold among the city’s fans. That’s the goal for Phillips, Fitzgerald and the entire Northwestern athletic department.

“For the proximity, for what this brand is, the Cubs brand, the Northwestern brand, for what the Wrigley Field brand is and this facility,” Phillips said, “it may be the very best moment we've had.”