Northwestern tackling attendance struggles

EVANSTON, Ill. -- For decades, Northwestern's biggest challenges lived between the lines.

The football program earned national notoriety for its futility, especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Sure, the stands at home games were empty, but given the product on the field, it made total sense.

One part of the equation has changed since 1995. By any measure, Northwestern is enjoying its best stretch in team history. The Wildcats have won or shared three Big Ten titles and made seven bowl appearances. The team won six or more games seven times in the past decade, including 17 contests during the past two years.

A program has finally been built, but they're still not coming.

Last season, Northwestern won eight games but finished 83rd nationally in average attendance at just 24,190 per game. Among teams from automatic qualifying leagues, only 1-11 Washington State had a lower attendance (22,509) than Northwestern. Even winning wasn't packing the seats at Ryan Field, so after Northwestern finished its season in a New Year's Day bowl game, athletic director Jim Phillips approached the school's administration.

"I showed them a couple different things," Phillips told ESPN.com. "I said, 'We can continue the course that we are and ebb and flow, depending on weather, depending on who we played, depending on some success.' But two years ago, we broke a record relative to revenue with tickets. Last year, we had just as good a season, and the revenue wasn’t as good.

"With that kind of fluctuation, they understood and they embraced the idea of what we wanted to do."

Phillips' idea was to launch the first large-scale sales and marketing campaign in Northwestern's history. In recent months he has added 10 new staff members -- two more positions soon will be filled -- led by Mike Polisky, the new associate athletic director for external affairs.

The campaign launched Aug. 2 and includes seven year-round billboards that will rotate on expressways around the Chicago area. It also features stronger advertising in local newspapers and on sports radio stations. Phillips and his staff are examining the game-day experience at Ryan Field and hope to make upgrades with concessions, parking, in-game entertainment and other areas.

But by far, the most important element is an outbound sales force that has each member making 75-100 phone calls a day.

The outbound sales force is a first for Northwestern. Most college programs don't have them because they don't need them.

"Northwestern's brand recognition nationally is there, but the athletic component has been a bit of a secret in the Chicago area," Polisky said. "Most universities are recognized by their towns: Ann Arbor, Columbus, Madison, Iowa City. When you think about Chicago, you don't think about Northwestern first and foremost. There are 30 something sports teams here, so it's a really competitive place."

Most of those are professional teams, so Phillips came to a solution: run Northwestern's sales and marketing as if it were a pro franchise. In formulating the plan, he talked to several leading Chicago sports executives, including his good friend John McDonough, the Chicago Blackhawks president who had held the same post with the Chicago Cubs.

But when it came time to make his major hires, Phillips didn't look to the Cubs or Bears, teams that always have and always will dominate the market. He didn't look to college programs, either.

"Instead of getting somebody that has had college experience in Norman, Okla.; or Austin, Texas; or Gainesville, Fla.; or Knoxville, Tenn.; we needed somebody that knew this market and had success here," Phillips said. "And we needed people who knew how to navigate through a crowded marketplace."

Polisky had helped grow the Arena Football League's Chicago Rush and the American Hockey League's Chicago Wolves into strong franchises in a major market. Phillips also hired Kurt Hasenbalg away from the Chicago White Sox to be the school's new assistant athletic director for ticket sales and service.

"What we're doing now is treating Northwestern athletics like the Bears, Bulls, Cubs, White Sox, Wolves, everyone," Polisky said. "We absolutely have to. We have to compete with them."

The difference, though, is that people grew up rooting for those teams. Northwestern needs to cultivate new fans.

Despite being located just north of the city limits, Northwestern has the second-fewest alumni of any Big Ten school in the Chicago area (only Penn State has fewer). And that's not going to change; in fact, the gap will grow larger over time, Phillips said.

To combat the numbers game, Phillips and Polisky are taking an approach that sounds like sacrilege in the college sports world: They're appealing to fans of opposing teams.

The tagline for Northwestern's campaign says it all: Chicago's Big Ten team.

"The Chicago area is Big Ten country," said Polisky, who went to Iowa but has several family ties to Northwestern. "We're absolutely welcoming Big Ten alums to come and enjoy Northwestern for every game except the one against their alma mater. If you’re a Michigan alum, we certainly expect you to come and watch when we play you in football and basketball. But we hope you'll come to the other games because you love the Big Ten competition, you love the game-day experience and you're a fan."

Northwestern has long relied on fans from other Big Ten teams to fill up Ryan Field, but now the school is trying to get them to Evanston more than once or twice a year.

Season-ticket sales for 2010 are up about 40 percent to approximately 16,000, but the surge is due mainly to Northwestern's upcoming game against Illinois at Wrigley Field, which was part of the season-ticket package. The real results from the marketing campaign likely won't be seen until 2011.

Phillips hopes for a 10-15 percent increase in season-ticket sales for next year, and steady increases afterward in what he calls a five- to seven-year campaign.

"It’s been more difficult than I thought," Phillips said of the attendance struggles, "but I don’t feel that way moving forward now that we have this commitment. I feel really, really confident that we can continue this, but you never know. You've got to work hard at it, you've got to be aggressive and the marketplace isn't going to get any less crowded.

"But we've got a chance."