Northwestern Jumps Wisconsin in Bowl Hierarchy

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By Paul M. Banks

You could certainly call this year’s bowl destination for Northwestern a step up from last season’s, and you can say that the selection process gave NU more respect this year than they did last year. In ’08 a 8-4 Iowa team jumped a 9-3 NU squad (which beat Iowa) for the Outback Bowl slot. Unless there’s a two game gap between teams in the standings (head-to-head is not a tie-breaker), the bowl has the right to select whichever team they want. And NU’s poor home attendance was cited as one of the main reasons for the snub.

Northwestern instead went into the Alamo Bowl as the biggest underdogs of the bowl season and lost to Missouri in OT due to a missed extra point. Purple Pride showed it could travel well, and now…DSC03028

An 8-4 NU team managed to jump the 9-3 Wisconsin Badgers. (Although it’s meaningless to the bowls, NU did again win the head-to-head here) Still the Badgers are a bigger national brand and have been a power for most of the last couple decades. But Bucky’s dominion had a couple things going against them. Being to so many Florida bowl games lately, the bowl committee worried their fans wouldn’t travel for this game. And a game out in Hawaii yesterday only heightened those fears.

Of course, when you consider the concept of “bowl-weariness” being a factor in the selection process, it reminds me you that most of these games are truly glorified exhibitions, as long as we don’t have a playoff system. Seriously “bowl-weary” isn’t that the best endorsement for a playoff system? well, that’s another topic for another time.

Back to today, where you can say that Dr. Jim Phillips just out-worked Wisconsin’s Athletic Director Barry Alvarez for it.

Northwestern blog Lake the Posts agrees with me:

“A win on New Year’s Day over an SEC team is about as much of a dream scenario as we could expect when you consider where we were on November 1 of this year. Congratulations to Jim Phillips who must have put on some convincing lobbying presentations for NU to get the nod over 9-3 Wisconsin who throttled Hawaii last night.”

And regarding Phillips’ lobbying, our friends at Spread Far the Fame describe that in detail.

“I give all the credit in the world to NU Athletic Director Dr. Jim Phillips. Bowls are VERY political, and he did an incredible job convincing the Outback Bowl that NU was the right team for them. I’ve spoken to Dr. Phillips a few times since the Outback snubbed NU last year. He told me that he actually met with their representatives soon after the bowl season ended last year and discussed with them why they chose Iowa over NU.

Then the campaign continued every single month. He would host bowl reps. at his house nearly every Friday night, and in the end all his work paid-off BIG TIME for the program.

Obviously, all his campaigning would have been for naught if the football team hadn’t stepped up and played their best football of the year in November. Pat Fitzgerald’s ‘Cats were able to win their final three games, including an upset of a top 5 team in Iowa, and a victory over the Badgers as well.”

Tonight at the bowl game press conference, I asked Dr. Phillips about how much of the selection process is about money and business, instead of football, or how much is about football and business at the same time.

“One affects the other and as we all know well, the economy is a factor as we try to live through it. And as a program there’s great excitement over the destination and the opportunity. But the economics are important, and it’s going to be important for us to travel well and demonstrate like we have in years past that we are eager to come back to the Alamo Bowl, and we are eager to come back to Florida for the first time in 13 years.

The one thing I will say from my two experiences here, the Big Ten conference does it as well as anyone in the country, there are no back room negotiations financially that we’ll commit to another two thousand, three thousand tickets, you take what the bowl asks you to take that’s agreed upon when the contracts are put together. And so there really is a clean slate relative as to who’s the best team to take, and who would be the most excited or whatever the bowl criteria is, you’ll have to ask them, but I think that helps all the schools in the Big Ten, especially during an economy like what we have right now,” he responded.


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.”