Business of a College Football Program, part one Marketing

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By Paul M. Banks

In the world of revenue-producing collegiate sports, what goes on in the boardroom is just as crucial as what takes place on the field in determining success. Since the mid 1990s, Northwestern University has been a very respectable middle-of-the-road Big Ten football team. Since 2003, Northwestern has compiled a 25-25 record in conference play, good for 6th place of 11. Since 1995, when the Cats won the first of their three recent Big Ten championships, only four Big Ten programs have managed to compile a winning record against Northwestern: Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Purdue. Against the other six schools, NU is .500 or better the past 14 years. Northwestern has also won six or more in eight of the last 14 seasons (six bowl appearances). Clearly, they’ve been a very respectable program, if not yet a dominant one on the field.

At the gate however, is a different story entirely. Last season the Wildcats finished just one win shy of the school record and qualified for the Alamo Bowl. But that breakout season, the best during the young tenure of Pat Fitzgerald, hasn’t boosted ticket sales. In their four home games this season, NU’s Ryan Field has been more than half-empty each time. They’ve failed to draw even 20,000 fans to their 47,000 seat venue for any of the first four.  Paid attendance reports yield more optimistic figures, but as anyone who has been to Ryan Field will tell you- the football stadium has unfortunately been 60-75% empty for each game.

I recently made a visit to the office of someone playing a crucial role in fixing that scenario, Tracie Hitz, Associate Athletic Director Sales and Marketing.halloweeen08-085

“We’re doing a lot better job doing research, tracking and being more targeted instead of just doing a mass marketing plan to television, radio and print. We’re more of niche than trying to blanket out Chicago, we don’t have the resources to do mass marketing,” she stated.

So what are some of the specific initiatives Hitz and company are working on? “We did a ton of research and found out that young alums don’t have anywhere to tailgate, they don’t have anywhere to go. So just going back and creating an area for them with beanbag tournaments and live bands, TVs running the pre-game and post-game and they can just sit there all day and watch college football if they want to,” Hitz said.  The Cats offer many amenities to complement watching football, and there are a couple of  big things in the works: a Wrigley Field match-up with Illinois is in the early stages of planning and the program also hopes to hold a post-game rock concert at Ryan Field soon.

One way to always help sales, especially in a dismal economy like this is to cut prices. It might also when considering how ticket prices for the local professional team, the Chicago Bears are so high they are intelligence-insulting. Would price cuts help?

“Lower prices- that’s what everyone says in the recession. From the research we’ve done, it’s not the prices that are a problem, that’s a knee jerk reaction. But they did want a youth price, some variable pricing, and we have lowered prices for non-conference games.” In addition to the reduced ticket rate for pre-conference games, you can find a deal just about anywhere to get a further discount on a non-conference game, making admission extremely affordable.

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Perhaps NU is haunted by the ghosts of the past. Even though they’ve been fairly successful over the past 15 years, the program experienced a historically epic level of losing in the 1960s-80s, and many Chicagoans remember this. The Wildcats failed to record a winning season from 1972-1994 and there was an especially putrid period in 1976-1981, when the Wildcats went 3-62-1. Exaggeration and hyperbole aren’t required for describing that era.

“You don’t find a lot of people who just grew up Northwestern fans yet. I’m hoping they’re coming, people who grew up in ’95, ‘96. We have so many people and so many great fans that do love us, so when you talk to them, their friends want to come. And you need to have some sort of connection- like your neighbor is a season ticket holder, that’s enough. We have so much big ground to make up, so every little bit helps,” Hitz opined.

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Of course, Chicago is a town filled with many people who possess an obsession with sports on a dysfunctional level. And since they’re in the third largest market, perhaps NU should take an angle marketing themselves as Chicago’s college football team. They don’t have a rival for that position, do they?

“We’ve tired to crack that nut for years. Coach Fitz was just placed into the Hall of Fame and it was a blurb in the Chicago media, but if you’re in South Bend or the hometown of all the inductees, it was a big deal in all their hometown papers, even if they haven’t played football in 50 years. And here we got nothing. The top stories are Notre Dame and Illinois and we’re down here,” the associate A.D. said.

I’ll be the first to admit that the local Chicago media routinely drops the ball in their college football coverage. But the more the Cats make public appearances, the more publicity they will receive. “That’s why you see Coach Fitz out in the community as much as possible, that’s why you see the Cats caravan out there every weekend. Having football players there makes a ton of difference,” Hitz said.

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It’s true that star power makes a difference, and when that star power moves on to the next level, it’s an added boost to the program on multiple fronts. NU is lucky to have one of the best young coaches in the game with Pat Fitzgerald, and there are quite a few Cats currently playing in the NFL. One of which, is a good friend of Fitzgerald’s and is currently making a name for himself with the local team. I recently asked Fitz about the play of Nick Roach with the Chicago Bears

“I’m very proud of Nick. I’m not surprised that Nick is having a great career with the Bears. Number one he’s an extremely intelligent football player. I’m assuming he knows all three (linebacker) positions and he’s also been playing in the kicking game for them. That’s what he did here for us. He’s really bright, understood concepts, fundamental and technique and he did what he was coached to do. Number two, he’s really athletic and he plays football the way you want guys to play. He plays with passion and emotion. He’s a great teammate, he doesn’t speak a whole lot but when he does guys listen. He’s a great guy to have in the locker room and I know the Bears are proud of how active he is in the community giving back the way he did when he was here. We couldn’t be more proud to have a Northwestern graduate with the Bears, the team we root for and love every Sunday. Am I surprised? No. I`m just really proud of him and I know he’s really happy to have an opportunity.”

More success stories like that will help the program tremendously. It will inspire more fans to head to Evanston on Autumn Saturdays, hoping to see the next big thing.

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  1. paulmbanks says

    They really should be drawing better…especially when you compare them to Ilinois who has the 2nd worst record in the big ten over that span. yet sells out most of their games

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