Saturday's game at Soldier Field is one of many Chicago events Illinois has hosted in recent years.
Sept. 11, 2013
By Lexi Shurilla, fightingillini.com staff writer
The University of Illinois football team hasn't played at Soldier Field since 1994, so that's nearly two decades of waiting for Illini fans in the Chicago area. Champaign-Urbana gets to take the weekend off and the Windy City gets to host the Chicago Homecoming when the Fighting Illini host the Washington Huskies at historic Soldier Field this Saturday at 5 p.m. CT.
"It's a homecoming because we're coming back to Chicago for the first time in 20 years," said Matt Wszolek, Illinois' associate director of development and corporate partnerships. "It's our game. There are so many people here in Chicago with a connection to Illinois, so this game is an opportunity for them to get back together and hang out and see each other. Maybe you haven't seen each other in days or maybe you haven't seen each other in years. It's the perfect chance for basically 1.4 million people to experience and go to a football game here for the first time in a really, really long time."
There are 220,000 alumni in the Chicagoland area. According to Wszolek's team research, there are 1.4 million Illini fans in the Chicagoland demographic marketing area (DMA), and out of 7.4 million people in the entire Chicagoland DMA. That means that about one out of every five people is attending, watching or listening to Illinois athletics. That's comparable to a lot of the professional sports teams in town.
"You do not have to go with six degrees of separation to find an Illini fan," Wszolek said. "You literally can ask any single person you know and they know either an alumnus or a fan. You don't have to go any further than that. Truthfully, that's what the numbers show you, anyway. Illinois is everywhere, so even though they are 150 miles apart, we try to tie Champaign and Chicago together as much as we can."
The university has been growing its relationship with Chicago for years. With the help of Learfield Sports, Illinois' radio rights have recently been moved to 670 The Score, and Comcast SportsNet Chicago, the No. 1 regional sports network in the Midwest, also announced their partnership with Illinois athletics and will be featuring the weekly Fighting Illini Insider show.
The idea that this is Chicago's chance to have a UI homecoming celebration means that they're pulling out all the bells and whistles to create a "homecoming-type atmosphere" for fans. Hours before the game, an Illini Fest will be held outside the stadium, including live bands, food and lots of activities to get ready for the game.
"We tried to create a fun atmosphere at Illini Fest for anybody from six years old and up," Wszolek said. "Everybody is going to have a great time because there's going to be stuff for everyone. It's really the pomp and circumstance of having a wonderful event here in downtown Chicago, which should be a wonderful September day.
"The opportunity to not only promote the game, but really use that as another way to reinforce how important Illinois and the brand is to the city of Chicago, it transcends just one game at Soldier Field."
The Soldier Field event is a great way to showcase the great relationships Illinois has with the pro sports teams in town. Jim Cornelison, an iconic voice of the Chicago Blackhawks, will sing the national anthem before the Washington game, and the Blackhawks' street crew will be a part of Illini Fest.
There are already agreements with both MLB teams in the city, giving exclusive opportunities for Illini fans at White Sox and Cubs games, no matter which team you support. Illinois basketball head coach John Groce and football head coach Tim Beckman both have taken part in "Illini Day" baseball games in the city by throwing out the first pitch and singing the seventh inning stretch.
"There are a lot of different opportunities for us to really get our boots on the ground in as many different events as humanly possible," Wszolek said.
Illinois plays a basketball game at the United Center every season and holds a golf outing featuring former Illini and PGA Tour star Steve Stricker at Olympia Fields each year. Illinois also holds golf and tennis tournaments at Olympia Fields each fall.
Chicago has hosted Illinois' I Run Chicago for the last two years, where participants get to run near Lake Michigan in Lincoln Park.
"It's a wonderful event that's all Illini," Wszolek said. "All the proceeds benefit the I Fund. You can be a Michigan fan and you like to run, and you run in our race and you're helping support Illinois athletics whether you like it or not."
Illinois is getting its name out there with as many different sports as possible.
"You want to capitalize on that affinity and create the ultimate experience for fans," Wszolek said. "You want the great experience when they go to Champaign. You want the great experience when they go to an event that has 10 people at it in Chicago or 100,000. It doesn't matter."
Out of all of the things that Wszolek's team does, what he may be most proud of is the partnership Illinois has formed with the Chicago Bears.
"We have live graphics talking about not only our games, but also talking about the fact that the Bears got their colors from the University of Illinois," Wszolek said. "It's not like we're just going to a stadium called Soldier Field. We're going to the home of the Chicago Bears. We're going to the home of George Halas' Chicago Bears, and George Halas is Mr. Illini. When you talk about Red Grange and Halas and Dick Butkus, there is this massive connection that goes beyond just the orange and blue colors of the Bears coming from Illinois. It goes to some of their best players in their history."
The advertising that went into the promotion of the Chicago Homecoming used both traditional means and completely new methods to get Illinois' name out to the public. Wszolek said they put billboards in high-traffic areas, elevator advertisements in office buildings and radio spots on The Score, but creating something completely innovative and unique to the world of collegiate advertising was due in part to a deal with Live Nation.
When a consumer bought a ticket for an event in the Chicago area online through TicketMaster - the online ticket site owned by Live Nation - they were instucted to enter a special code when completing their order to prove they are a human. Instead of entering in the computer code words "that nobody can read trying to prove that you're a human instead of a robot," buyers were actually entering in "Illinois. Our State. Our Team." or "Soldier Field Chicago Homecoming" or "Illini football in Chicago" or "Oskee-Wow-Wow."
"It didn't matter what you were buying. You were going to be exposed to it," Wszolek said. "It had never been done before, so it was completely unique and fresh. We were the first college in the world to do it."
Illinois has some competition in the Chicagoland area for sports loyalty, with many top universities near the city itself, or just over the border, but it's proven that Illinois fans have staked their claim to a big part of the city's heart.
"It's all about the water-cooler conversation," Wszolek said. "You're going to be sitting next to, potentially, other Big Ten alums, or people that root for another team, and you want to wear your colors with pride. Whether it's a win or loss, you want to own that water-cooler conversation. You want to be able to say this is our city and this is our state. "
There are two different groups of alumni designed to help the Chicago marketing team. An advisory board of alumni and a younger group fresh out of college that helps make the decisions from a fan's perspective. Seeing what is trending in the younger demographics with social media and what works and what does not, these groups have been instrumental in helping with marketing decisions in the Chicago area for Illinois.
"This game allows us to put the flag in the ground and paint Chicago orange," Wszolek said. "We want to say this is our state, this is our team, and let's fly the flag with pride and show every single day that it's an Illini day in Chicago, not just this one game."
It all comes together for a sweet homecoming Chicago.