WNUR Sports Director Joe Misulonas (@jmisulonas) lays out his argument for why Northwestern is not yet Chicago’s Big Ten Team, but does have the potential to be.
Yesterday, Jim Sannes wrote in his NUmbers Guy column that Northwestern has finally become “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” This was in response to the recent success of the Northwestern baseball game at Wrigley Field and his recent trip to a Sox-Twins game, where he saw more NU fans than other college teams.
I would say, respectfully, that Jim overstated the case.
First of all, the Wrigley game only drew 4,197 fans. While that is way more than Northwestern will draw at any other game this season, it’s not an amazing number. You figure in a city of nearly 3,000,000 people, there are probably tens of thousands of Northwestern graduates living in Chicago. I’m not sure the Wrigley game was as much an expansion of the Northwestern brand as a unique experience for the players and alumni living in the Windy City.
Second, according to Chicagobusiness.com, Northwestern has the third smallest fan base in Chicago amongst Big Ten teams, finishing only ahead of Penn State and Nebraska. Considering Nebraska is a newer Big Ten team that has largely been present in Big 12 country its entire existence, and Penn State is basically on the East Coast, it’s not surprising they would have limited exposure in the capital of the Midwest (yes, I consider Chicago the capital of the Midwest. Come at me, Bro!) Granted, the Northwestern fan base has jumped by 50 percent since 2008. So assuming they continue their recent successes in athletics, it’s possible they could increase their fan base further.
Having grown up in Chicago, I can say there were little to no Northwestern fans that I knew. I’ve seen Michigan, Ohio State, and Illinois flags flown in my neighbor’s yards, but never the Purple ‘N.’ And that only considers Big Ten schools. Notre Dame is easily the biggest college fan base in Chicago, at least on the South Side. Growing up, I’m sure none of my friends could tell you where Northwestern was located, but they sure as hell knew about Touchdown Jesus and South Bend, Indiana.
Finally, I think we (as in the Northwestern media) have overplayed the importance of the BASEBALL game at Wrigley Field. College baseball just doesn’t have the marketing power or attraction that basketball and football do. I don’t think anyone in Chicago cares that Northwestern played a baseball game in Wrigley. Football game at Wrigley? That’s awesome, and people take notice. But baseball? No one cares (at least from an extending your brand perspective).
So while I agree with Jim’s initial premise that Northwestern has become more popular and visible to Chicagoans, I have to say the idea that they have “cemented themselves as truly being Chicago’s Big Ten Team,” is quite a stretch. And I think it’s the type of thinking that has to be stopped. Northwestern is not Chicago’s Big Ten Team, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to be. And I think there are several ways to do so.
1. Play some basketball games in the United Center. Illinois has a yearly game in the United Center, and as a kid, I remember my dad taking me to a Northwestern-Illinois game there as well. Considering the sordid state of Welsh-Ryan Arena, it may not be the worst idea to have either a high-profile non-conference game or conference game (Illinois being the obvious choice) at the United Center every year. I think the Wrigley Deal was great, but a United Center deal would be even better.
2. Can we get Pat Fitzgerald his own show on ESPN Chicago or 670 the Score? This fall ESPN Chicago started “The Jay Cutler Show,” every Monday morning. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a one-hour Pat Fitzgerald show? Fitz hosts the show with the regular guys, and it’s an all-college football show. They talk Northwestern football, they talk Big Ten football, they talk national football. We know Fitz has the charisma to do a good job, and certainly would increase Northwestern’s media exposure.
3. This is unrealistic, but creating a college hockey program COULD increase their popularity in Chicago. The Blackhawks have been solid the last five years, and the number of fans attending games and paying attention to the team in Chicago has increased exponentially. When the Hawks won the Stanley Cup, two million people gathered in the streets of downtown for the victory parade. Since the lockout (the first one, the season-long one), Chicago has been reborn as one of the greatest hockey cities in the nation. In February, Soldier Field hosted the 2013 Hockey City classic, with Notre Dame, Miami (Ohio), Wisconsin, and Minnesota all playing in front of Chicago fans. Is it possible that creating a Northwestern hockey team could draw some of the excitement building in Chicago around that sport? I think so.
(Creating a hockey program would be pretty difficult. First of all, not all the Big Ten teams have hockey programs, and the ones that do are powerhouses, making it difficult for Northwestern to compete early on. Also, it would require a lot of money. Not only to build our own program, but also we’d need to create another women’s sport due to Title IX, or we’d have to eliminate a different men’s sport, which no one would want. It would also require either major renovations to Welsh-Ryan Arena to accommodate a hockey rink, or the construction of a new facility. At best, if they started now, they’d still be a decade away from building a hockey program.)
I agree with Jim on a lot of things. But I can’t say that Northwestern is Chicago’s Big Ten team yet. But they are making strides, and if they continue the great athletic success of late, they may just one day fulfill their slogan.