clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Column: Jim Phillips' Commitment to Thinking Differently Puts Northwestern on the Map in Chicago

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

When Jim Phillips arrived at Northwestern, he made his intentions very clear from the beginning — he wanted Chicago.

That’s a lofty goal for a school with a small enrollment and fan base spread thin throughout the world. Heck, every other Big Ten university besides Penn State has more alumni in Chicago than Northwestern.

But with each year, Northwestern has made steps toward becoming Chicago’s Big Ten team — first with the marketing campaign, then with the game against Illinois at Wrigley Field. Tuesday morning, NU took its biggest step yet, announcing a partnership with the Chicago Cubs that will include five football games and numerous baseball and lacrosse games at Wrigley Field, and cross-marketing between the university and the Cubs.

It’s tough to call this a game-changer, because NU still faces significant challenges — the enrollment issue, the alumni base, etc. — that it can’t change. However, the Wildcats finally have a permanent stake in Chicago that’s more than just a marketing slogan.

That’s a major step for Northwestern’s brand, and it’s thanks to Phillips.

“I don’t’ want to overstate it, but this is really historic,” Phillips said. “We looked to see if there was anything else in college athletics that was near this; we couldn’t find anything. And for the proximity, for what this brand is — the Cubs brand, the Northwestern brand — for what the Wrigley Field brand is and this facility, it may be the very best moment we’ve had.”

During Phillips’ press conference Tuesday morning, I immediately thought of Billy Beane’s words in Moneyball: “We’ve got to think differently.”

Phillips really has a Moneyball-type situation he’s dealing with, not in terms of putting together a team, but in needing to think differently. NU is never going to be successful if it acts like its Big Ten brethren; the Wildcats are so much different from all of those schools.

At around 8,000 undergraduates, NU has by far the smallest enrollment of any Big Ten school. Phillips noted that the second smallest school — Iowa — is three times larger. Plus, NU has to deal with a saturated market that is full of other teams to root for. Conversely, Iowa and Nebraska are essentially their states’ pro teams, and much of the fan base is made up of people who didn’t go t the school.

“We’ll always be the tiny private school in the Big Ten,” Phillips said.

Phillips can’t change NU’s role as “the tiny private school” in the conference, but that doesn’t mean he can’t change the school’s approach toward filling its stadium.

Phillips was frank about the limitations of the NU fan base. It’s not even a problem about the numbers — the Wildcats can’t get its alumni to come back to games like nearly every other Big Ten school can. That means he has to find a new, untouched group to potentially add to NU’s fan base, and he has that in Chicago.

Phillips’ long-standing goal has been to get transplanted alums from other schools in Chicago to cheer for NU in addition to their alma maters. The same goes for people in Chicago who didn’t go to college, but want a college team to cheer for. It’s tough to get those people to suddenly decide they want to cheer for NU and come up to Evanston for games. However, if there’s a historic event in their backyard — like a football game at Wrigley — NU is much more likely to draw that crowd.

Ultimately, Chicago has a saturated sports market, but no college team has been able to grab hold of the city. The Wrigley deal helps NU take a giant step forward in becoming the college team synonymous with Chicago.

There’s still a long ways to go, but Northwestern is well on its way to making “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” a reality, not just a marketing slogan.

That’s thanks to the remarkable work of its athletic director, whose commitment to thinking differently about what the NU fan base can be certainly looks like it’s paying off.