In recent years, Northwestern has learned that its biggest obstacle doesn't exist on the field, but at the ticket booth.
The Wildcats' football program ended decades of futility with a breakthrough season in 1995. During the last 15 seasons, Northwestern has reclaimed respectability with three Big Ten titles and seven bowl appearances.
But winning isn't translating to butts in seats. Despite a 9-4 season in 2008, Northwestern ranked last in the Big Ten and 83rd nationally in attendance average (24,190) last season, the second lowest average among BCS programs. Only woeful Washington State attracted fewer fans than the Wildcats.
There are several legitimate reasons for Northwestern's struggles at the gate -- a small and scattered alumni base, a location in the sports-saturated Chicago market, a limited tradition of winning, resistance from the city of Evanston -- but the program should be doing a lot better than it is.
It's why Thursday's announcement that Northwestern will launch its first-ever major marketing campaign for athletics is long overdue. The campaign, which officially begins Monday, includes advertising in three local newspapers and on the radio, as well as seven year-round billboards in the Chicago area.
Most important, Northwestern finally has made a real investment in these areas, bringing on at least 10 new people in marketing and ticketing, led by Mike Polisky, the new senior associate athletic director for external affairs. I'll have much more on Polisky and his vision next week, but he's definitely bringing a fresh approach to a major challenge.
It's amazing to think that before now, Northwestern didn't have a ticket-sales department for athletics. This group is expected to make nearly 2,500 weekly sales calls. The marketing group is looking at ways to improve the game-day atmosphere, including a new speaker system at Ryan Field.
These are things you have to do to succeed in big-time college athletics. These are areas where Northwestern never made the right type of investment in the past.
“To be certain, the university is making a long-term commitment to marketing our great sports properties the right way," athletic director Jim Phillips said in a statement announcing the campaign. "We are not looking for a quick fix; rather, we will determine our level of success over an extended period of time."
Northwestern is billing itself as "Chicago's Big Ten team," which sounds nice but will be tough to truly achieve. There are so many Chicago teams competing for fans' dollars, and Northwestern really needs to get creative with this plan.
But for the first time, Northwestern is in a position to market its program in the right way. You have to start somewhere.