By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) Chicago is in Illinois.
But in many ways, Illinois is still trying to get into Chicago.
As part of its ongoing efforts to expand the Illini’s presence in the Windy City, the University of Illinois athletic department since just February has formed cross-promotional partnerships with the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Fire, rolled out a new marketing slogan (“Our State. Our Team.”) to counter Northwestern’s motto (“Chicago’s Big Ten Team”), and announced that it will host the University of Washington football team at Soldier Field in 2013.
Last week, Illinois took yet another step toward sinking its teeth deeper into the city when the school announced the addition of a new Director of Development/Chicago Operations to its staff.
“Zach Goines brings a great deal of experience and success to the I FUND staff as he directs our Chicago operations,” Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said about his newest team member, who previously held positions at Miami, Marquette and Connecticut. “Zach has served as a development director at three major institutions prior to coming to Illinois, and has extensive experience working in the Chicagoland area. He will play a big role as we continue to bring more Illini events and enhanced exposure to the Chicago area.”
Now, I haven’t given thanks to much that Mike Thomas & Co. have done at Illinois over the past several months. But here on Thanksgiving Day, I’m handing out kudos to Illinois’ focus on making Chicago a marketing priority. It’s an area that’s long been sorely – and inexplicably – lacking among the university’s promotional efforts, and it’s a positive to finally seeing it prioritized.
Last week, I canvassed a swath of Illini Nation via Twitter and Facebook, asking for suggestions about how the state’s flagship school could better connect with fans – both existing and prospective ones – in the city. And here are five tips culled from that feedback, as well as my own thoughts, for Illinois on how it can better crack Chicago.
1. Play more basketball in Chicago
Every year, Illinois plays one nonconference basketball game at the United Center (this season it’s against Auburn on Dec. 29). But one showing a year in the Windy City – not counting the Big Ten Tourney, which returns to town next March – really isn’t enough.
To generate more hoops buzz, consider also perhaps playing one Big Ten game a season at the UC. Maybe schedule a series with DePaul, which Illinois hasn’t faced since the 1957-58 season. Or work out a deal to rotate the annual Braggin’ Rights Game with Missouri between St. Louis and Chicago.
After all, that much-hyped affair shouldn’t always be in Tigers’ state, should it?
2. Schedule Notre Dame
The Irish aren’t coming to the Big Ten. But they might come to Chicago for a game against Illinois. No, probably not in football.
After all, Notre Dame and Illinois haven’t played each other on the gridiron since 1968, and with the Irish’s arrangement with the ACC, it’s doubtful that they will anytime soon. Or ever.
Nevertheless, Illinois could try to schedule Notre Dame for a basketball game in the Windy City. People would certainly watch.
3. Capitalize on the Bears heritage
The Bears got their nickname because they played their games at Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs, when the team first arrived in town from Decatur. But the Bears got their team colors – orange and blue – from Illinois, where George “Papa Bear” Halas played football for legendary Illini coach Bob Zuppke.
In the future, when scheduling an Illini football game at Soldier Field, try to couple it with a Bears game on that same weekend. Play up the heritage between the football teams, educate NFL fans about the history, and hold Illini-related football events that preceding week throughout the city.
4. Bring Champaign to Chicago
Speaking of holding Illini-related events in Chicago, it would be savvy marketing to hold an annual event at Daley Plaza in Chicago’s Loop during Homecoming Week.
Illinois alums who work downtown could stop by during their lunch hour or at the end of the day to re-connect with their university and friends. As one friend described it, “It’d be like a grown-up version of Quad Day.”
Beyond that, how about having the Illini baseball team play a weekend series at Wrigley Field or U.S. Cellular Field? Maybe the soccer teams could host a tournament at Toyota Park. Find ways to bring more of Champaign up to Chicago on a regular basis in order to help get Chicagoans enthused about driving down to Champaign.
5. Investigate new radio partners
NIU football games are broadcast on 50,000-watt WSCR-AM. Northwestern football games are broadcast on 50,000-watt WGN-AM. Notre Dame games are broadcast on 50,000-watt WLS-AM. Illinois, meanwhile, has its games broadcast on 5,000-watt WIND-AM.
Something seems off there. For increased visibility – and, well, listen-ability – investigate alternate broadcast options to better spread the Illinois brand both near and far.
At his introductory press conference, Mike Thomas said that he wants Illinois to be “King of Chicago.” If that can actually be done in a city that’s splintered by 300,000 alums of Big Ten schools plus scads of Notre Dame fans, it’s going to require assaults on multiple fronts.
Oh, and, you know, a lot of wins too. Don’t forget those.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.