Commentary

Wildcats finding growth in Bear market

Updated: June 25, 2011, 2:06 PM ET
By Scott Powers | ESPNChicago.com

Pat Fitzgerald Jerry Lai/US PresswirePat Fitzgerald no longer can hear his parents from the stands, which is a positive sign.
Editor's note: This is part of a weeklong series examining the unique circumstances faced by FBS programs that reside in metropolitan markets alongside an NFL franchise.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has an easy way of measuring the growth of fan support over the years.

If he can hear his parents from the stands while he's on the sidelines, the level of overall support is low. If he can't hear them, then it's great.

Nothing against his own parents, but Fitzgerald would rather not hear them.

"When I was a student-athlete, I could hear my mom and dad yell my name," said the 36-year-old Fitzgerald, who played linebacker at Northwestern from 1993-97 and has been its head coach since 2006. "I knew where my mom and dad were sitting. Now, I have no idea. That's kind of embarrassing, but that's the easiest way to explain it. It's night and day."

Fitzgerald has witnessed as a player and coach the brightest and darkest days of the program's support. He's seen Ryan Field, which was named Dyche Stadium during his playing days, packed in purple, but he also knows of the times when the open seats have outnumbered the fans in the 47,130-capacity stadium.

Fitzgerald and Northwestern are hopeful that with the program's recent successes -- three consecutive bowl appearances, the vision of athletic director Jim Phillips, the hiring of Mike Polisky to oversee sales and marketing, and the addition of a sales force -- Fitzgerald won't ever have to hear his parents again from the field.

Unlike most programs, Northwestern's on-field success isn't the only factor that determines whether fans will come out to Evanston and get behind the football team.

The program did receive a spike in attendance when Fitzgerald and Co. led the Wildcats to the Rose Bowl in 1996 and the Citrus Bowl in 1997. The Wildcats averaged more than 40,000 fans per game during those years. But there also have been years when the team won plenty yet the fans stayed away. The Wildcats were co-Big Ten champs in 2000 and averaged only 34,237 fans.

Being just outside of Chicago, Northwestern does face a number of obstacles that other college programs don't.

"We're in a really, really tough environment for a couple of reasons," said Phillips, who was hired as athletic director in 2008. "No. 1, this is a pro sports market. You're not going to displace those programs. No. 2, it's a saturated marketplace. There are so many things for people to do."

Northwestern's other large hurdle is that the Wildcats do not have a massive alumni base in the area. Northwestern is a private school with an undergraduate enrollment of 8,100 and draws students from across the country. Illinois, which is 150 miles away from Evanston, has a significantly larger alumni base in Chicago than Northwestern.

[+] EnlargeDan Persa
Jerry Lai/US PresswireThe success of Dan Persa and the Wildcats program under Pat Fitzgerald, combined with a proactive marketing campaign, has helped make significant strides in fan interest.

Phillips, who grew up in Chicago, understood these challenges when he was hired and had a few ideas about how to fix them. His main one was being proactive in drawing fans to Ryan Field. Instead of waiting for the phone to ring in the ticket office, Phillips wanted to aggressively advertise and market the football team.

Phillips took a major step toward improving Northwestern's fan base when he hired Polisky in June 2010 to be the senior associate athletic director for external affairs, a job created to run the athletic sales and marketing. Phillips chose Polisky because of his unique past, which didn't include a college athletics background. His career had been immersed in professional sports. He had been the Chicago Wolves (minor league hockey) team president and Chicago Rush (arena football) president and general manger.

"We could have gone around the country and hired somebody with college experience, maybe somebody from Oregon, Oklahoma or Texas," Phillips said. "We made a conscious decision that we needed somebody who knew Chicago and knew what a crowded landscape it was. It was somewhat of a risk.

"I felt someone with Mike's experience was perfect for us. He wasn't with the [Chicago] Bears. He's learned how to fight and scratch and claw toward progress in selling a product that has not been on the top of everyone's mind."

Phillips also hired a sales force. Before, Northwestern waited for people to contact the school for tickets. By hiring people, the Wildcats became proactive. They had their people making a 100-plus calls a week to potential ticket buyers.

Polisky also had his own ideas when he arrived. He sought to create brand awareness and spread the word about the Wildcats.

"What we felt was important was that maybe Northwestern was still a little bit of a secret," Polisky said. "A lot of sports fans needed to be reminded we're here and we're yours.

"We had to start competing like a professional franchise in the respect we had to advertise ourselves; we had to manage ourselves in a different manner than most colleges have to with a sales forces, marketing. In order to compete in the Chicago area, you can't be a wallflower."

Northwestern began advertising in local newspapers and websites and Sports Illustrated's regional edition. It also placed advertising on seven rotating billboards on nearly every major Chicago-area highway.

A number of those billboards promoted Northwestern's new slogan -- Chicago's Big Ten team. The ad campaign was one of Northwestern's most successful this past year.

"It spoke to who we are," Polisky said. "We open our arms to Chicagoans. We need Chicagoans. Anecdotally speaking, it grabbed a lot of people's attention. The brand identification resonated with people."

Polisky also looked to improve the gameday experience for fans. Northwestern upgraded its sound system at Ryan Field. It added fireworks and more pre-game festivities. It tried different ways of increasing fan participation during games, especially with the use of the video scoreboard.

"The passion isn't inherently there," Polisky said. "They don't have this national allegiance to Northwestern. You have to build that. When you're talking about families and young kids, you have to make sure they have a good time no matter what happens on the field."

All of the changes have produced results. Northwestern went from averaging 24,190 fans in 2009 to 36,449 fans in 2010. It was the second biggest increase in college football last season. Only Louisville's 18,198-fan jump was bigger.

Phillips was pleased with the initial surge in attendance, but he isn't content.

"There's no quick fixes," Phillips said. "We have a nice jump out of the gate. We're not going to be judged on one season. It's a test of time, a 3-5 year cycle."

Fitzgerald, himself, is a walking advertisement for the school and football program. He's been a student, player, assistant coach and head coach at the university. He's memorized the program's Academic Progress Rates, graduation rates, its number of Big Ten championships and bowl game appearances and will recite them whenever given the opportunity. He also ends every conversation with an enthusiastic, "Go 'Cats."

Having just signed a contract that makes him Northwestern's coach through the 2020 season, Fitzgerald is in it for the long haul, and he's optimistic his program and his fan base will continue to grow.

"The fans' support, the passion in Chicago and in Evanston, it's at an all-time high, and we're still not where we want to be," Fitzgerald said. "I think that's one for the positives when you're in a world-class city like we are. I don't know what the limits are. The sky is the limit.

"We don't have an inherent fan base. We're not the state school. We're not where your mom or dad went to school. I still think the kids think we're cool and want to wear the purple and white."

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.

Scott Powers is a general reporter for ESPNChicago.com. He is an award-winning journalist and has been reporting on preps, colleges and pros for publications throughout the Midwest since 1997.