Jim Phillips, CEO of Northwestern’s Athletic Program Part 1

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By Paul M. Banks

In 2008-09, Chicagoans became well aware of how Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, along with team Vice President John McDonough re-branded the Blackhawks from red-headed stepchild to main event on the Second City’s sports stage. Forbes named them the biggest turnaround in sports business history. When you’re a university Athletic Director, you have responsibilities which often come quite close to matching those of a professional franchise owner.  Northwestern’s A.D. Jim Phillips is looking to be the next executive to accomplish such a feat.
“John McDonough is a close friend, I spend a lot of time with him, as well as executives from some of the other pro teams because they know the market,” Phillips said when I visited his office for an extensive interview earlier this year. Phillips went to Wrigley Field for the 2009 NHL Winter Classic, as well as several other Hawks homes games, taking in the buzz surrounding the team. “I wanted to see what they were doing to revitalize the program, and John is the architect of all that.” daleyhawksjeryse1

Phillips articulated what fundamental principles he noticed working effectively, and how he’s implementing them at Northwestern University.

“One is the fan experience; people want to be entertained, as this economy has affected everybody. I can’t control the product on the field, the wins and losses, but I can hopefully control something with the experience. Getting good tickets and finding a place to park can’t be a hassle. We can’t have a hassle at the concession stands. There has to be lots of family friendly things to do before the game, as part of a broader vision of fan experience.

“Second is target-marketing. Surely, it’s a target audience that will make a difference for us, studies have shown. Pricing is also a critical component, we held the line, and in several instances we even decreased even though other teams in the Big Ten increased their prices. Also, certainly the internet has really taken the head over the direct mail. But there’s still a huge area for that contact. When somebody from our office calls you to thank you for being a season ticket holder and asks you, was it a great experience? Did you enjoy yourself? Was it affordable, something you want to again?”

Like Rocky Wirtz, Phillips is a man of the people: greeting everybody in his path, getting involved in the community, talking in-depth with fans and media alike. He gets to know the journalists covering his team, as Phillips knows increasing awareness for his program is an essential component of his innovative marketing style.

“You certainly got to allow people to have access to your team, that’s what we’ve done with Stretch with the Cats before the spring game, autograph sessions, etc. to break down the barriers that may be real or imaginary within teams or organizations. Hopefully, we can build on the successes of the program and further that. Certainly, the last 15 years we’re third in conference in Big Ten championships behind only the Big 2, but we haven’t had a litany of success over say the past 50 years, especially in the ‘70s there were some rough times,” Phillips articulated.  northwestern

Despite the program posting a very respectable 6 bowl appearances in the past 14 seasons, they may still be haunted by the ghosts of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The Wildcats failed to record a winning season from 1972-1994, including an especially putrid period in 1976-1981, when the Wildcats went 3-62-1. But encountering and conquering challenges is nothing new to Phillips.  When he served as Northern Illinois University Athletic Director, he and former Iowa AD Bob Bowlsby arranged a football game between NIU and Iowa at Soldier Field. The September 1st, 2007 match-up was a sell-out; setting a Mid-American Conference attendance record for a home football game at 61,500.

“When I signed the lease agreement at Soldier Field, my hand literally shook because of what they wanted to rent the facility and I thought: how many tickets do I have to sell in order for this thing to break even? And we did a lot more than break even, but that’s just part of being aggressive through marketing and promotions.”

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