- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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On the field, Illinois and Northwestern compete directly for tangible prizes: the Land of Lincoln trophy, bragging rights for the next year and, in the big picture, the Big Ten championship.
Off the field, the schools compete indirectly for a potentially more important but harder-to-define prize.
The Big Ten's two Illinois-based programs want a bigger piece of the league's biggest market. Although they'll employ different strategies, their goal is the same: a larger presence in the Windy City.
"This isn’t about Northwestern vs. Illinois," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips told ESPN.com. "It's about institutions and programs trying to carve out a piece of the Chicagoland area."
Northwestern made the first move in the summer of 2010, launching its first-ever major marketing campaign, spurred by the tag line "Chicago's Big Ten team." The school targeted the Chicago market, putting up billboards, increasing advertising with media outlets and getting its football program in the spotlight.
The early returns have "extremely successful," Phillips said. Northwestern had the nation's second-highest increase in average football attendance from 2009 to 2010 (average increase of 12,259 fans). The school's corporate sponsorships have tripled in the past 18 months, according to Phillips.
"The benchmarks are all headed in positive direction," Phillips said, "but it's about long-term sustainability."
At his introductory news conference as Illinois' athletic director last month, Mike Thomas declared, "We want to be the king of Chicago." Thomas is putting together a plan on how to approach the Chicago market in new ways.
"Even prior to my taking the job, it was clear from my homework that there was more work to do up there," Thomas told ESPN.com. "We need to do a better job of marketing our brand and having a presence. You can define presence in a lot of different ways. Is it all the different media pieces? Is it billboards? Is it playing more contests up there?
"It can be a lot of different things, but how do we cater to those people, knowing that they're very important to the growth of all of our programs."
Not surprisingly, Illinois will target the large number of its alumni in Chicago, as well as those who grew up rooting for the Illini as the state's flagship college team.
"You would think we would have a leg up on people like that," Thomas said. "The percentages would tell you the opportunity for success is greater with them than those that didn't go to school here."
Northwestern has taken a different approach to marketing, largely out of necessity. With the second-smallest alumni base of any Big Ten school in Chicago, Northwestern has reached out to general sports fans and even those who root for other Big Ten teams.
"I don't think you have the spike or the ascension of numbers and attendance figures without garnering some of those individuals who don't have specific allegiances to teams," Phillips said.
Northwestern has relied on opposing fans to help fill Ryan Field, a trend that will continue to some degree. Illinois, meanwhile, will focus primarily on those with some ties to the school or its teams.
"It's going to be awfully difficult to get alumni of other Big Ten schools or people that have been die-hard, passionate fans of other Big Ten institutions for years to flip their allegiances and become Fighting Illini fans overnight or at all," Thomas said. "The focus should be those people who are already engaged in us, and then those who may be out there in the gray area, who hopefully we can get to gravitate toward our fan base."
Northwestern has the advantage of being located just north of Chicago's city limits. Illinois, meanwhile, is 130 miles away.
Thomas wants to play more Illini home games in the city. Illinois' basketball team has played at the United Center for years, but the football team could soon play contests at venues like Soldier Field or even Wrigley Field, where Illinois and Northwestern played last November in a Northwestern home game.
"There is a formula that probably works up in Chicago," Thomas said. "Does it mean more games? I think it does. What does that look like at the end of the day? I probably couldn't tell you right now. But hopefully we'll get it figured out sooner rather than later."
Both Thomas and Phillips understand the difficulty of boosting a brand in a pro-sports city saturated with teams. Thomas faced a similar challenge at his previous stop, the University of Cincinnati, as well as in his hometown of Denver, where he served as an assistant AD at the University of Denver. Phillips is a Chicago native and an Illinois alum who made stops at Notre Dame and Northern Illinois before coming to Northwestern.
The two ADs are friends and praised one another for ramping up efforts in Chicago. They both agreed that the biggest step toward increased attention is winning on the field.
Phillips downplayed the direct competition off of it.
"What works for us may not work for them and vice-versa," he said. "Truthfully, I don’t think we're competing for the same people."
The competition on the field, which resumes Saturday in Champaign, is more clear cut.
The Illinois-Northwestern rivalry seems to be spicing up. After Illinois thrashed Northwestern last year at Wrigley Field, Illini linebacker Martez Wilson, a Chicago native, said, "Our game plan showed who was Chicago's Big Ten team." At Big Ten preseason media days this summer, Illinois coach Ron Zook took a shot at Northwestern's nonconference schedule.
Illini coaches and players have been salty leading up to this week's game.
"We heard them say some things, like 'We recruit different kind of guys. They don’t recruit our kind of guys,'" Illini linebacker Ian Thomas said. "We want to show them our kind of guys are better football players and a better team."
Zook said Tuesday that the schools don't recruit against each other much, adding, "we take some kids that they wouldn't take and they probably take some kids that we wouldn't take." But both staffs spend much of their time recruiting the Chicago area.
The Chicago element adds to what's at stake between the lines.
"The game's important to both of us for a lot of reasons," Zook said. "It's important because it is a Big Ten game. It's important because it's a rivalry and it's important because it's Chicago."