Background and Challenge

As a member of the Big Ten Conference, Northwestern University annually faces some of the nation’s most successful football programs, including perennial powerhouses Ohio State, University of Michigan and Penn State. Off the field, the competition is just as fierce because the Wildcats must battle five professional sports teams and a few minor league franchises for the mindshare of Chicago-area sports fans. Despite having a better winning percentage than most of the Big Ten teams during the past few years, the football team ranked dead last in home attendance. To help reenergize its fan base, the school’s athletic department recruited L.E.K. Consulting to identify strategies to bolster attendance and increase local buzz about the program.

Approach and Recommendations

Working closely with the athletic department, L.E.K. analyzed the market to establish benchmarks and best practices from other sports teams. This research included in-depth conversations with athletic departments at comparable schools and regional professional sports teams. In addition to gaining added insights from sports business thought leaders, L.E.K. also identified that other Big Ten schools were spending many times more to promote their football program than Northwestern.

L.E.K. also surveyed local Northwestern alumni for their perceptions of the Wildcats football program. The survey revealed that the team has a strong, focused following and that the broader alumni community is also interested in following the team. However, the alums expressed hesitations about attending Wildcats games due to lack of time and cost concerns.

Based on research findings, L.E.K. modeled high-level sales and marketing initiatives for the Wildcats that included budget recommendations and suggestions for maximizing various marketing channels (e.g., ticket promotions, outdoor advertising, etc.). Using LE.K.’s recommendations as a foundation, Northwestern approved a significant increase in marketing and sales support for its football program, including hiring a senior executive from the local pro sports ranks, building an internal sales organization and investing substantially in paid media.


Northwestern unveiled its first major marketing campaign for the 2010 football season. During the course of the next two years, the campaign would market the Wildcats as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team,” feature the players in Chicago-area billboards throughout the year, increase advertising and expand direct marketing.

The goal to capture the attention of potential fans has paid off. Average home game attendance increased 27%* in the 2010 and 2011 seasons despite the team’s overall .500 record during that time. The marketing campaign also drew attention from the likes of ESPN. The university has been pleased with the results and plans to continue to evolve its marketing program in the future.

*Average reported home attendance increased 27% over the 2010 and 2011 seasons vs. the average over the 2005-09 seasons (source: NCAA).

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