EDITOR’S NOTE: This column also appears in this week’s issue of TimeOut Chicago, as part of our weekly web-to-print partnership.
Over in South Bend, Domers are talking about a national title. Up in Evanston, Northwestern’s Wildcats are looking like a legitimate Big Ten team. And out in DeKalb, the directional arrow for Northern Illinois is pointing straight up—again.
It’s great to be a college football fan in Illinois.
Unless you’re a fan of Illinois.
In Champaign, the mood is blue with almost no orange shining through. Having been outscored 263-87 over the past seven games, life is rough for the 2-8 Fighting Illini and their embattled first-year coach Tim Beckman. And the success of Notre Dame, NU, and Northern Illinois is only making things worse—possibly for years to come.
In August 2011, Mike Thomas took the reins from Illinois’ retiring athletic director Ron Guenther, who during his long tenure in Champaign never displayed a great desire to aggressively promote the Illini brand in Chicago. However, during his introductory press conference, Thomas announced that he wanted to strengthen Illinois’ presence up north.
“I think we need to become better branded nationally, and that starts within the state,” Mike Thomas said when asked about raising the profile of Fighting Illini athletics and in turn recruiting more top athletes from the big city. “I think we need to be the king of the state. I think we need to be the king of Chicago.”
With more than 300,000 alumni from a dozen Big Ten schools splintering the fan base in Chicagoland—not to mention Notre Dame staking claim to the hearts of many, including much of the Catholic community—the city is a tough nut to crack for any school. It’s unlikely any one institution can truly conquer it. Nevertheless, Thomas has since embarked upon a marketing campaign set on achieving that lofty goal.
— In late February, Illinois announced that it had formed a cross-promotional partnership with the Chicago White Sox that allowed Illini fans to receive special offers to selected games, suites, group sales, and patio parties. As part of the arrangement, the Sox hosted Illini Day at U.S. Cellular Field in June, an event similar to those held every season at Wrigley for the past decade.
— In March, Illinois announced another partnership with the Chicago Fire that included the opportunity for Illini fans who purchase season tickets for the soccer club to donate 20 percent of the proceeds to the University of Illinois Athletics IFUND.
— This summer, the Illini unveiled a new marketing slogan—“Our State. Our Team.”—which was a clear response to Northwestern’s two-year-old tagline, “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.”
— This fall, the school revealed that its 2013 game against the University of Washington would be moved from Memorial Stadium to Soldier Field.
All of those measures have the potential to cook up support among sports fans in Chicago, but so far this football season the Illini have forgotten to include the most important ingredient: winning.
Fact is, right now, Illinois’ product isn’t even selling in Champaign. During the Illini’s homecoming game against Indiana, attendance at 60,670-seat Memorial Stadium did hit a season high—but it was only 47,981. And that was the announced crowd, not the actual one.
Fans simply aren’t compelled to watch an offense that can’t score, a defense that can’t defend, and special teams that are anything but. That’s especially so when the team is led by a man who thus far has become better known in the state for chewing tobacco and lasagna than he is for his charisma or coaching acumen.
Throughout the season, Beckman’s Illini have shown no signs of being well prepared for games. They’ve committed penalties, turnovers and miscues at critical junctures. And the players show little emotion on the gridiron. It’s a disastrous mix.
Meanwhile, Thomas saw his own popularity dip among Illini fans after bungling the coaching searches for football and men’s basketball. Fans’ opinion of the AD is dropping like a stone as they’ve watched his hand-picked football coach, having inherited a program that had won consecutive bowl games, struggle to put together back-to-back scoring wins.
When he left Cincinnati to take the AD job in Champaign, Thomas set his own bar for the University of Illinois high, declaring: “Our goal is to be a national brand, identifiable from coast to coast. But that really starts in the state and then we’ll work ourselves out from there.”
So far for Illinois and Thomas, the plan isn’t working—here, there, or anywhere.