Mike Thomas didn't waste time in laying out his priorities as Illinois' athletic director, saying last August that he wanted Illinois to become "the king of Chicago."
Thomas has wanted to reshape the Illinois brand, particularly in the nation's No. 3 market, where many of its fans and alumni live. Northwestern's recent marketing campaign shaped around the slogan "Chicago's Big Ten team" hasn't gone over too well in Champaign. As soon as Illinois polished off a win against Northwestern last October, the Memorial Stadium scoreboard read "The State of Illinois' Undefeated Big Ten Team" as Frank Sinatra's "My kind of town" played in the background.
Illinois recently has taken some other steps to increase its Chicago footprint, which have nothing to do with Northwestern. The school this week announced partnerships with Major League Baseball's Chicago White Sox and Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire. The cross-promotional relationships will allow Illinois fans to receive special offers to White Sox and Fire games. The White Sox are holding an Illinois day for their June 1 game against Seattle. Illinois fans who purchase Fire season tickets receive a 20 percent credit back to their University of Illinois I-Fund account, as well as other perks like a behind-the-scenes tour of Toyota Park.
"Even prior to my taking the job, it was clear from my homework that there was more work to do up there," Thomas told ESPN.com in September. "We need to do a better job of marketing our brand and having a presence. You can define presence in a lot of different ways. Is it all the different media pieces? Is it billboards? Is it playing more contests up there?
"It can be a lot of different things, but how do we cater to those people, knowing that they're very important to the growth of all of our programs."
Thomas is flexing his marketing muscle, and it'll be interesting to see what other steps he takes to make Illinois a bigger brand in the Chicago area. He talked to me in September about possibly playing football games at Soldier Field or Wrigley Field.
Illinois must stem its recent attendance decline, and having a stronger presence in the Chicago area could help turn things around.