Chicago is essential to the Big Ten’s fabric. The conference is headquartered here. Its tournaments are frequently held here. Also, the Windy City and its numerous surrounding idyllic suburbs provide Big Ten universities with a steady stream of desirable out-of-state students whose families can pay that highly sought after out-of-state tuition.
Every August, graduates of Chicagoland high schools invade Big Ten campuses. Invariably, many of these Chicagoans return to Chicago upon graduation. They also, with the help of the Windy City’s vibrant social scene and job market, lure those from other parts of the midwest to Chicago.
Several of these transplants make Chicago their permanent home. This feedback loop has created an impenetrable pipeline between Chicago and the Big Ten.
College Fanbases in Chicago
The Big Ten pipeline makes Chicago a hodgepodge of college fanbases. Big Ten grads, specifically those from Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa and Purdue, move here in droves after college. There’s a little Nebraska, Penn State and Minnesota sprinkled in here and there. Northwestern has always had a presence in high-level media and executive circles but recently has tried to forge a connection with the rest of city.
Outside of the Big Ten, Chicago boasts a decent number of alums from Kansas, Iowa State, Missouri, Kentucky, Arizona and Colorado. Let’s not forget about all the graduates from Ohio University, Miami (Ohio) and Dayton — most of whom remain fiercely loyal to Ohio State.
Notre Dame is the casual fan’s default team
Then, you have Notre Dame, whose actual alumni and subway alumni have a large presence but not an overwhelming one. The typical Bears’/Bulls’/Soxs’ or Cubs’/Blackhawks’ fan who is only a causal observer of college sports will typically default to Notre Dame fan-hood.
This wide array of college fanbases makes it difficult for any of them to turn Chicago into their city.
But the Illini have the numbers, so what can they do to increase visibility?
If there’s a fanbase that can take over Chicago and call it their own, it’s Illinois because their actual alumni greatly outnumber any other alumni group.
Despite this numbers advantage, the Illini’s presence in Chicago is really hardly felt (currently). They are the quiet majority. Still, there are steps UIUC can take to make its Chicago alumni have a louder voice and stake a claim for being Chicago’s college sports team. We have a few suggestions.
Our Ian Gold hit the nail on the head in his excellent piece on creating state loyalty with in-state recruits. Winning is far and away the most important part of forging the kind of geographic bonds the Illini want to forge, especially with the ingrained pro sports culture in Chicago.
The University of Georgia has an overwhelming presence in Atlanta primarily because they win in football and because UGA has been ingrained in the area longer than any pro sports team. The same goes for LSU in New Orleans. Winning, in football and basketball, will make the Illini far more visible in Chicago, and vastly improve their recruiting efforts in the area. But, winning is not a cure all for the Illini’s visibility issues in Chicago.
2. Create a unified message of Illini academic excellence and then boast.
The Shutdown Fullcast crew made a pointed observation during their recent academics episode: Illinois is the great school everyone seems to forget is a great school — routinely ranking as a top-10 public university. It excels in business, accounting, engineering and computer science, among other fields. UIUC has also had a tremendous impact on the creation of the internet’s modern infrastructure.
But, you would never know that talking to Illini grads. Most alums enter the workforce with just quick anecdotes about their alma mater’s academic excellence.
An Indiana grad will talk your ear off about the competitive cut-throat nature of their Kelley School of Business and how that prepared them for the cut throat real world. A Michigan grad will remind you that an undergraduate degree from the Ross School of Business is as good as an MBA from most other universities. A Wisconsin grad will tell you about their Real Estate and Urban Land Economics program. Notre Dame alums speak with a sparkle in their eye about all the good they do for the world. We all know how Northwestern grads talk up Medill.
Universities do a great deal to program their students of their schools’ excellence. It starts the moment they step on campus for orientation. Students carry and spread this message with them the rest of their lives.
Illinois grads, on the other hand, rarely brag about their alma mater’s academic excellence, which is odd. One theory for this humble, lowkey attitude is that they leave UIUC without an anecdote or a quick elevator pitch about Illini academic excellence. UIUC’s administration needs to create a narrative about how Illinois excels academically. Then, program this into the student body from day one.
Hell, there were two logos — one academic and one athletic — until last year. The Gies College of Business is the first ‘named’ college on the campus. The University needs to be unify and promote itself to be on the level with the aforementioned schools to an extent.
3. Marquee Matchups at the United Center
Illini Basketball makes an annual December trek to the United Center. In the past, they’ve played marquee opponents such as Duke, Kansas, Arizona and Gonzaga. Recently, however, they’ve played opponents that do not generate excitement.
Playing the local school in UIC is a nice gesture, but that matchup generates little to no excitement when the Illini come to town. The same goes for recent matchups with Auburn, Georgia and BYU.
Meanwhile, Kansas, Michigan State, Duke, UNC, UCLA, Kentucky and Ohio State routinely play marquee games against each other at the United Center as part of various rotating tournaments. By no means should the Illini deprive State Farm Center of big out-of-conference showcase games, but the Illini could get creative in terms of scheduling marquee matchups or getting involved in marquee preseason tournaments at the United Center.
Maui is nice, but giving the local fans a big treat would help.
4. Use Wrigley for Football and Baseball
The Ricketts family bought the Cubs knowing they were also buying some of the most valuable real estate in the world in Wrigley Field. Boy, have they monetized that asset.
Under Ricketts’ ownership, Wrigley has hosted soccer matches, numerous concerts and Mikel Leshoure running wild on Northwestern. With the Ricketts’ willingness to expand Wrigley’s use beyond Cubs baseball, the Illini should get creative and figure out ways to use Wrigley.
Under the right circumstances, we would love to see another Illinois Football game in Wrigley (preferably as the home team this time), but that can be logistically difficult.
Even if a football game is impractical, Illini Baseball could get in some Wrigley fun by moving a Big Ten series to Wrigley, or better yet, play one game in a Big Ten series in Wrigley as part of double header with the Cubs.
Imagine Illinois-Michigan baseball followed by Cubs-Tigers.
Heck, invite Mizzou to the friendly confines for a Mizzou-Illinois/Cards-Cubs doubleheader.
With creativity and re-branding, the Illini can make a push to become Chicago’s college team or at least rebuild a stronger connection to the Windy City. Such a connection will liven up Illini grads living in Chicago. In the long term, such a connection could help the Illini form a valuable recruiting pipeline for Chicago’s highly desired high school basketball and football talent.