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“It’s not just about the business side. It’s about offering a quality product and a broad-based program that’s an important part of university culture.” — Northwestern University Athletic Director Jim Phillips

“It’s not just about the business side. It’s about offering a quality product and a broad-based program that’s an important part of university culture.” — Northwestern University Athletic Director Jim Phillips

'Chicago’s Big Ten Team'

NU Athletics officials talk to Kellogg Part-Time students about what it takes to build a winning brand


10/13/2011 - College athletics aren’t only about winning the big game — they are also about creating a brand that scores with consumers as well.

Northwestern University Athletics officials discussed that challenge with students in Kellogg’s Part-Time Program on Oct. 8, the day the school’s football team hosted a sellout crowd in a game against the University of Michigan.

Athletic Director Jim Phillips made light of the notion that college athletics are a “business,” noting that 17 of his 19 sports are guaranteed to lose money. “But it’s not just about the business side,” Phillips said in a talk with students in the Saturday program. “It’s about offering a quality product and a broad-based program that’s an important part of university culture.”

Northwestern’s status as a small, private school makes its challenge doubly difficult. “Since 10 other Big Ten schools have more alumni in the Chicago area, we can’t fill up our stadium with just Northwestern alums,” Phillips said. “We have to reach out elsewhere if we’re going to make a difference in Chicago.”

To boost the presence of Northwestern athletics in Chicago, Phillips hired Senior Associate Athletic Director Mike Polisky — former president of both the Chicago Wolves hockey team and the Chicago Rush arena football team — in June 2010. Polisky spearheaded the campaign to market Northwestern athletics around the new tagline “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” “Some call it genius, and some call it stupid,” Polisky said. “But it has resonated, and as a consumer product that’s the first thing you need.”

Beyond the tagline, NU’s marketing efforts have included beefing up its ticket-sales force, increasing corporate partnerships, and investing in major media buys, including seven large billboards in the Chicago area. The results have been immediate and impressive: Northwestern football led the nation in same-stadium attendance growth from 2009 to 2010, while the season ticket base has grown by 55 percent since Polisky arrived.

Phillips, who landed his dream job at Northwestern after four previous stops on his own career ladder, ended with an inspirational message for students. “If you’re truly passionate about what you’re doing, you’ll never ‘work’ a day in your life,” Phillips said. “Don’t let someone else tell you to chase something you’re not passionate about. Figure out your final destination and work yourself backward, with a plan and goals. And you’re certainly helping yourself by going to Kellogg.”