Illinois aims for stronger Chicago presence

In about a month, the Chicago River will be dyed green for the city's St. Patrick's Day celebration.

If Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas gets his way, the river could soon turn a different shade.

"There's certainly things we can do to brand and market our program better to create a much greater presence up there," Thomas told ESPN.com on Thursday, "whether it's on billboards or whether it's dyeing the river orange. I know that may not go over well with the powers-that-be."

An orange river certainly would attract attention in Chicago. And that's the goal for Illinois, which is trying to penetrate the Big Ten's largest market, one filled with Illinois alumni and fans but also saturated with other sports and leisure activities.

After announcing a statewide marketing push last summer, Illinois is focusing specifically on the Chicago market and on Monday announced a new Chicago athletics advisory board to assist with marketing and branding. The nine-member board with "deep connections to Chicago" features prominent Illinois alums and donors who live in Chicago, including several advertising CEOs, a CBS sports anchor (Ryan Baker) and the co-owner of the popular sports bar, Joe's (Tom DiSanto).

"They're all people who have been very successful in their own lives," Thomas said. "A lot of them have experience on the external side that might bring some great thoughts of how we can do some things up in that area. People who live and breathe Chicago every day might look at it through a different lens than others."

Thomas made headlines shortly after his hiring when he said he wanted Illinois to become the "king of Chicago." Although Chicago is and always will be a pro-sports city first, Illinois has resonated in the market, most recently in 2005 when its men's basketball team reached the national championship game.

The football program has had a tougher time forming the connection, in large part because of its inconsistency on the field. Attendance for games in Champaign dropped by eight percent last season -- the largest drop in the Big Ten -- after the Illini stumbled to a 2-10 record. But Thomas prefers to look at the Chicago market as a "great opportunity" rather than a challenge.

He said the university fully supports the push, which will include more games and other events like the "I" Run.

"Where we were and where we want to go eventually, obviously there's a gap there," Thomas said. "We have significantly more alumni in the city of Chicago than any Big Ten school. We dwarf every Big Ten school. But that doesn't necessarily mean that those people are engaged with what we're doing.

"It's not going to be flipping the switch, it's not going to look different tomorrow, we've got a lot of work to do. There's a lot of things we can do to change the way we do business up there."

Aside from old-fashioned winning, the best way to connect to a somewhat faraway market is to showcase the product there. And that's what Illinois will do Sept. 14, when it hosts Washington at Chicago's Soldier Field. The Illini, who play basketball games annually at the United Center, haven't played football along the lakefront since 1994. They last played in Chicago at Wrigley Field in 2010, but as the visiting team against Northwestern.

Thomas doesn't really look at the Washington game as a trial run.

"If we want to have a real presence up there, it's something that you need to continue to do," Thomas said. "We hope to have great success up there as far as the support and attention that [the Washington] game receives, but even if it falls below what we would hope it would be, it doesn't mean you give up on it.

"To me, that means you keep chipping away at it until you arrive."

Thomas said he hasn't had discussions with Northwestern about another game at a Chicago venue, although he has a "real interest" in one. Northwestern last week announced a partnership with the Chicago Cubs that will include five future football games at Wrigley Field.

Northwestern in 2010 launched a major marketing initiative complete with the slogan "Chicago's Big Ten team," which has paid dividends so far with attendance and interest. Thomas noted that Illinois' initiative targets current Illinois fans/alumni and those with no college sports affiliation (Northwestern has marketed more to general Big Ten fans).

"We're not going to flip people that have gone to other Big Ten schools or have an affinity for another school," he said. "But if we do a bang-up job with our own people, then we've covered a lot of ground."

And who knows, maybe Illinois eventually will cover a well-known stretch of water, too.