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Just The Same Old Thing: On Attendance And Marketing

As you likely already know, Northwestern lost to Michigan at home on Saturday, getting outscored 28-0 in the second half. It's become abundantly clear that Northwestern is a bad second half team; they've now blown a double digit second half lead in four of their last eight Big Ten games, and Michigan is an undefeated top 10 team, so no one can be too surprised at this point.

Even less surprisingly, the sellout crowd at Ryan Field was largely made up of Michigan fans. On television, it was difficult to tell just how big a percentage of the crowd was rooting for Michigan, but I've seen estimates ranging from 40% to as high as 65%. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle, but either way, it's rather embarrassing for the program. Adding insult to injury, MGoBlog founder and recent podcast guest Brian Cook tweeted the following after the game, as thousands of Michigan fans were filling Ryan Field with the dulcet tones of "Hail to the Victors":


So, yeah. Jim Phillips and the marketing department have put a lot of effort into promoting Northwestern football, and they have managed to increase the number of season ticket holders, but when push came to shove during a prime time home game against a marquee opponent, Ryan Field was a long way from a home field advantage, and that's unlikely to change any time soon.

In theory, the marketing department's "Chicago's Big Ten team" ad campaign made a lot of sense. The largest obstacle Northwestern faces in building a fan base is not the relatively small alumni base, it's that almost no one grows up as a Northwestern fan. From the mid 1970s to 1995, the football program was historically incompetent and completely irrelevant outside of Evanston, meaning that just about the only fans among people over 40 years old are Northwestern alumni. Meanwhile, the rest of the Big Ten attracted local fans who became die hard supporters of schools they didn't attend, and those fans got married and had children who were brought up to root for the same school as their parents. So it made all the sense in the world for Northwestern to try to begin roping in young fans looking for a college team to support.

Unfortunately, Chicago isn't exactly filled with unaligned college football fans just waiting for a bandwagon to jump onto. Most of the college football fans there already support a Big Ten team, and in the vast majority of cases, it's someone other than Northwestern. So in order to truly establish themselves as Chicago's Big Ten team, they have to beat the teams that Chicago currently supports, such as Illinois. So when Northwestern gets embarrassed by Illinois at Wrigley Field in a game that was getting national hype, and then loses to Illinois again the next year, the Illinois fans in Chicago justifiably mock Northwestern as pretenders to the Chicago throne, while the Chicago fans previously intrigued by the Northwestern hype jump off the bandwagon fast enough to injure their ankles.

Which leads us to the Dan Persa Heisman campaign. Were Persa at 100 percent to start the season, the campaign would have paid huge dividends. While a healthy Persa would have been an extreme long shot to even get a Downtown Athletic Club invite, let alone win the Heisman, it was within the realm of possibility, and more importantly the campaign would sell tickets, get national pundits talking about the program and thus make Northwestern a lot more relevant. It was a great idea, and whoever came up with it should be applauded.

However, Persa was not 100 percent to start the season; in fact he wasn't ready to play until October. While this came as a surprise to fans, it certainly wasn't a surprise to anyone at Northwestern: Teddy Greenstein reported last week that Persa re-injured his Achilles in June, a setback that pushed his recovery back a month. Rather than reevaluate his Heisman campaign, the marketing department decided to go ahead with it anyway, unveiling the PersaStrong billboard on August 1st, despite knowing for a fact that injuries would leave him with no chance to win the award. Following the season-opening win over Boston College, the Persa billboards were replaced with a general ad for NU football. The marketing department would claim this was previously planned, but that explanation made little sense: had Persa played versus Boston College and lit it up, why take down the billboards just as Persa was establishing himself as a legitimate candidate? The explanation only makes sense if Northwestern already knew that Persa wouldn't be playing early in the season.

The decision to go ahead with Heisman campaign despite Persa's injury was extremely short-sighted, because while it may have sold more tickets in the short term from people hoping to see Persa play, it also likely upset many of those same fans who felt deceived by the athletic department. The coaching staff even helped with the charade, listing Persa on the depth chart each of the first three games and waiting until the day of the game to officially announce he wouldn't be playing even though there was no way he was ever going to see the field. They even went so far as to list him as the "emergency QB" against Army, then went to untested Trevor Siemian during the emergency situation of losing to Army in the fourth quarter.

Long term season ticket holders, die hard fans in other parts of the country, and much of the student body are going to show up and pay attention to the team unless they become completely incompetent, but the new fans Northwestern is trying so hard to attract aren't nearly as committed. Anyone who purchased season tickets expecting to be wowed by Dan Persa was probably pretty ticked off when they showed up against Eastern Illinois only to find Persa limping around the sidelines. And after seeing Northwestern lose to lowly Army and collapse against Illinois, many of those new season ticket holders probably decided there were better ways to spend a beautiful fall Saturday than watching Northwestern get spanked by Denard Robinson and Michigan. So they sold their tickets to Michigan fans, possibly turned their season ticket investment into profit, and went back to not caring about Northwestern football.

Under the leadership of Jim Phillips and Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern has at least made an effort to aggressively promote the football team, but they're fighting an uphill battle. Since NU hasn't come close to contending for a Big Ten title in recent years, their only choice is to promote the program through focusing on consecutive bowl appearances and running a clean program with no NCAA violations and high graduation rates. That's nice and all, but it's not going to put new fans in the seats. Just ask Boston College. Before this season's unforeseen collapse into the ACC basement, Boston College posted a record of 103-50 from 1999 to 2010 and went to a bowl game all twelve years, winning eight of them. And they did all that while being among the national leaders with Northwestern in graduation rate.

Yet Boston College generally failed to bring in new fans in huge numbers, and only sold out Alumni Stadium when big name opponents were in town. That's because they only won one conference co-championship in those 12 years (they lost the tiebreaker and played in the Continental Tire Bowl) and never once played in a New Year's Day bowl game. The only time they were nationally relevant in that stretch was in 2007 when they briefly climbed into the top 5 in the country before losing three times and ending up in the Champs Sports Bowl.

New fans aren't going to jump on the bandwagon of a program that's good but not great, no matter how many consecutive irrelevant bowl games they go to or how many players they graduate. The casual fans want to see conference championships, appearances in major bowl games, and Heisman Trophy candidates (legitimate ones). Boston fans came out in droves for Doug Flutie's early 1980s BC teams, just like Northwestern fans sold out Dyche Stadium to see the 1995 and 1996 Wildcats. But neither school could maintain that level, and the casual fans lost interest.

The only way that Ryan Field will ever be regularly sold out and mostly purple for games against Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, etc. is for Northwestern to be a Big Ten title contender. Even the most ingenious and innovative marketing ideas will only make a marginal difference if Northwestern continues to cruise along at .500 in conference play. By the historical standards of the program, Pat Fitzgerald has done an excellent job so far, but he needs to do a hell of a lot more to make Northwestern relevant in Chicago. And now, as his most hyped team ever sees a Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl win as a best-case scenario for the season, it's unclear if he ever will.