From a business side of sports, what the Blackhawks have done to turn their franchise around is remarkable. The team that has won 3 Stanley Cups in 6 seasons of hockey was once labeled as the "Worst Franchise in Sports" by ESPN in 2004. Now, the city is scattered with red and white sweaters, and people are talking about hockey more than football (which is quite the feat here in Chicago). Thanks to the executive staff and owners, the city's once storied franchise has returned to the throne of the sporting world.
As a fan of Chicago sports and the Illini, I wonder if Illinois will ever reach that achievement. The only memories I have of Illinois that are deemed "noteworthy" are the 2001 Football Big Ten Championship, the 2005 Men's Basketball season, and beating Ohio State to earn a Rose Bowl birth in 2007. Those seasons brought waves of excitement and pride to fans and are memories worthy of revisiting now and then. What will it take for Illinois to regenerate that same excitement and buzz?
The answer lies in the Madhouse.
Here's what Illinois needs to learn from the Chicago Blackhawks:
1) Respect and Honor Your Heritage
When former owner Bill Wirtz passed away in 2008, so did his bad blood with Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull. Along with other Blackhawk greats, Stosh and Hull were invited back in 2008 to join the organization as Goodwill Ambassadors. You will see them at games along with Tony Esposito and Denis Savard, as all four frequently represent the Blackhawks' organization at games and in public. Outside of the United Center, statues of Hull and Mikita provide a visual reminder of their greatness in Chicago's hockey history.
Memorial Stadium only displays a statue of the "greatest college football player" on it's West Entrance steps. While it is 100% appropriate to have a Red Grange statue, there need to be more scattered throughout the football complex for fans to enjoy. If you're asking for an honest opinion, Dick Butkus needs a statue on the East side of the stadium while he's still around. It's also not a bad idea to start thinking about adding a 'Hall-of-Fame' section to Memorial Stadium for people like George "Papa Bear" Halas and Jim Grabowski.
2) Market Your Product
Now this one is just the tip of the iceberg. So allow me to break it down into 3 separate segments for you.
2a) Market Your Young, Upcoming Stars
In 2006, the Blackhawks drafted some young gun by the name of Jonathan Toews. Then in 2007, they drafted Patrick Kane. With a recent news release from the NHL, these two will have appeared on a combined 3 video game covers in a span of 6 years. They have become the very face of a franchise that has ruled in the world of professional hockey since they've joined the league.
If I'm Illinois, I find a way to get Mike Dudek's name and image more out and about. His appearance on the Big Ten Network last season was wonderful, and really helped get his name out and around the conference. Find a way to keep that going!
2b) Develop a REALLY Catchy Slogan
One goal. That's it. Nothing more than two easy words that fuel a team to their ultimate destination or desire. It's really easy to fit on a t-shirt, or a rally towel (more on that later), or ever short enough to lop a pound sign in the front and label it as a "hashtag." Hey all you wonderfully smart business marketing professors! How about you give a scholarship to the student that develops the catchiest/most creative slogan to use in social media and commercials?
2c) Direct Attention Towards Anything BUT The Product on the Field/Court
Rally towels, promotional giveaways, quality opponents, banners and retired numbers, new and improved facilities, on ice projections and pregame shows, a quality marching band--ANYTHING to get the fan's attentions off the playing surface and onto something else can put butts in seats faster than you can say Illiniwek. That's one thing that the Blackhawks have been able to do so successfully, generating/creating a need for something that's worth less than a dollar. Let's start with a classic: rally towels. They've become the office collectible that people SWOON over. Some pageant queen even roped a few together into a dress for this year's Stanley Cup Final. I personally have a collection of three rally towels in the office and I constantly remind myself, "there's room for a few more." Something as simple as a glorified dish rag has become a reason to buy a ticket to a hockey game, and THAT'S how you know you've created something special.
If I'm the marketing department of the DIA, this is the first step I'm taking to generating buzz around our programs. Sure a newly renovated basketball arena is a great first step, but there needs to be more efforts concentrated on bringing people to games and keeping butts in seats. Also, get more players on social media. Remember when Reilly O'Toole was mic'd during pregame warmups? THAT'S the kind of media that fans want to watch when they're not in the stands on gameday. Give me footage of the belly flop contest during preseason camp, or give me a Go-Pro look at what Wes Lunt sees under center every time he throws a pass.
3) Create A Quality Atmosphere
What I mean by this is as follows: invite big-time teams into Memorial Stadium to draw bigger TV markets to Illinois athletics. We play in the Big Ten, so there is always going to be a big name school traveling to Champaign at least once a season. But instead of bringing in a team like Southeast Missouri State, go find a team in the Top 25 that's going to draw a national crowd.
The Blackhawks do a WONDERFUL job with their scheduling, as most of their weekend games are original-6 opponents that help draw the attention of the national game of the week. Twelve times last year, you could watch the Blackhawks in ANY state as they could be found on NBC or NBCSN. Instead of playing games that barely squeak you onto regional coverage of ESPNU or the dreaded ESPN Classic appearance, play someone that is always the center of national attention. Take notes when you're playing against them too, you might see some things you could try with your own program.
For Illinois to turn things around athletically, it's going to take some time. Heck, AD Mike Thomas has even started with the renovation of the
Assembly Hall State Farm Center. Let's just hope that some long term investment in our athletic programs can generate some off the field buzz in years to come.