Winning games in Illinois could be huge for the university

Often times, I talk about the importance of communication when building up the program. Yes, communication between the coaches and the players on the court is paramount to winning basketball games. But I’m not here to talk about the basketball team today. I’m here to talk about communication between departments, employees of the university, really the whole UWM community, and how they can help each other achieve their goals by using Milwaukee Panthers Basketball.

The Panthers went down to UIC on Saturday, and it was just the shot of penicillin Milwaukee needed to get over a disappointing loss to Valparaiso last Thursday. The Black and Gold dominated, leading for most of the game and pounding UIC to a very satisfying end.

Before the game, the UWM Alumni Association hosted an event for all fans at the Wise Owl Drink and Eatery, just a couple blocks north of the UIC Pavilion. That event is a good way to get alumni from Chicago involved in the university; by having a university event near them, one that involves something exciting like basketball, they’re generating school spirit among the attendees. Those alumni who attend foster a stronger connection to their alma mater, which will create more support from them in the form of donations and advocating for the school in their social circles.

Events like this are good; the Alumni Association exists to keep alive the connection between the alumni and the university. Outside Wisconsin, Chicago has by far the most amount of alumni. Being over an hour away, campus events aren’t an easy way to connect with those alumni. This game is perfect: the wide majority of Americans are into sports, and basketball is one of the most popular sports; the Milwaukee Panthers are the best representatives of the university in terms of basketball, as they’re the official team; they play annually at UIC, near the heart of Chicago. The game provides the Alumni Association all the excuses they need to run an event nearby.

This type of event really only happens once, maybe twice a year. The Chicago area has a long list of alumni. The UWMAA exists to engage those alumni. Running these events allows the UWMAA to achieve their goals with Chicago alumni as well as help the basketball team put together a traveling crowd. By all accounts it was a good one; let’s hope the UWMAA can figure out alumni and fan gatherings in other cities with a large amount of UWM alumni.

They’re not done with basketball this year either – they’re sending two 56-person buses to Detroit for the Horizon League Tournament. Each bus should fill up to the point that they need to book more buses. You have to promote your events on social media, because it’s acceptable; you can’t call everyone (I mean you can) and you can’t barrage their e-mail inbox with more than a few e-mails a month on the Motor City Madness. So hopefully we’ll see the UWMAA put the full court press on their social media followers so everyone is aware of the Tournament trip. Promoting this on their own social media accounts and working with athletics and other university accounts (and @PantherU, obviously) will help build attendance for the conference tournament trip as well as followers for their social media accounts.

On the topic of Chicago, though, other parts of the university can benefit from the work of the basketball team if they only work together. Every employee of this university who has a use for marketing needs to view the basketball team as the marketing arm of the university. This is true whether you’re talking about athletics, that needs to promote other sports teams and sell merchandise; the bookstore, that just sells merchandise; the Union, which needs to promote its own events to keep people using the building; or individual schools and colleges, who need to raise money from alumni for projects, research, scholarships and other expenses.

What other part of the university needs to use basketball as its own marketing arm? Admissions.

While the UWM Alumni Association has a lot of alumni to cover in Chicago, it’s the same with the current student body. A great amount of students enrolled at the university are from Illinois, and the school needs to use basketball as an advantage. A simple search of public information shows that in 2014, UWM crossed the 1,000-student threshold for the first time with kids from Illinois, enrolling over 1,100 Illinoisans on campus.

This is an extremely important development for the university. Just ten years ago when the Panthers played Illinois in the Sweet 16, there were only about 300 students from the state of Illinois enrolled at UWM, both graduate and undergraduate. In the past decade, that number has climbed to 1,100-plus. The number could climb even higher, over 1300 by 2018 and beyond if the university doggedly pursues the prospective Illinoisan student population.

You can spend marketing dollars putting up billboards, getting on the radio or television in the expensive Chicago market. You can even spend money marketing on social media. However, you need to use what you have to your advantage. What we have at the university is a Division I basketball team, something only four schools in the state of Wisconsin can say.

So why put all this effort into Illinois, when the university has upwards of 28,000 students? I’m glad you asked: it’s easier to retain students from Illinois. Students are like everyone else – when you’re more emotionally attached to something, the more you’re willing to stay attached to it. That’s true for sports teams, burger joints and universities. There’s a reason local colleges have some of the lowest numbers for retaining students from their freshmen-to-sophomore years. It’s easy to pick up and move to a different school.

Students from out-of-state are required to live in the dorms their first year, so they experience a lot of the traditional college life unlike most commuter students. Their lives are 24/7 Black and Gold. They wake up on campus, go to school on campus, eat on campus, usually work on campus, and hang out with friends on campus. When they go to sleep, they’re still on campus. That year in the dorms indoctrinates them to being Panthers, whether they’re sports fans or not. It helps us retain those students from their freshman to sophomore year, and enrollment will grow if the sophomore class gets bigger from year-to-year.

While recruiting and maintaining the student population from the greater Milwaukee area and the rest of Wisconsin is paramount, there’s a case to be made that mining Illinois for the next generation of Panthers is almost as important. We’ll never have as many students from Illinois as we do from Wisconsin, but they’ll be a lot easier to retain because they’ve spent that year in the dorms and had the traditional college experience that most commuter students miss.

Admittedly, I was also going to pitch that out-of-state tuition is another big reason for the university to attract students from Illinois. Then I started digging for numbers and found a very different story.

Looking at UWM against a group of public Division I universities in Illinois, I found that not only was Milwaukee competitive, we were the best candidate for students from northeastern Illinois based solely on dollars.

I compared the University of Milwaukee (hey that sounds good) with Western Illinois, Eastern Illinois, Southern Illinois (the main Carbondale campus), Illinois State, Northern Illinois, UIC and Illinois. These public, Division I universities are schools that UWM compares favorably with in regards to tuition and location. UWM, of course, is only two hours from downtown Chicago, and will be that long only if you get caught in traffic.

Of the seven schools listed, only UIC and Northern Illinois are closer to Chicago than UWM. UIC is obviously in Chicago, and Northern Illinois is only an hour and change away. Milwaukee is closer to many of Chicago’s northern suburbs than NIU, so the distance is negligible. The point is, if the state line didn’t exist, many of the Chicago area’s high school students would already be considering UWM since it’s much closer than many of these schools while still being outside the city.

When looking at the cost of a college education, tuition and fees as well as room and board are taken into account. In regards to cost of attendance, only Western Illinois is cheaper than UWM – Tuition, fees, room and board cost about $20,890 at WIU compared to a round $22,000 at UWM. Eastern Illinois is about $600 more expensive than UWM, and Southern Illinois is about $1,000 costlier than our school. Chicago-area students look to them as in-state schools and a better value, but the fact of the matter is that UWM is second-cheapest of those four and closer than all of them. Western Illinois is about $1,000 cheaper than UWM, but students there are a full four-hour drive from Chicago, more than double the distance from our campus.

How is UWM able to be so cost-effective for students from Illinois? UWM has a Midwestern student exchange, which allows students from other states in the Midwest to come to school here at tuition that is close to in-state numbers. This allows us to be competitive on the bottom line with schools in Illinois, where the cost of attendance is generally much higher. EIU and SIU are only slightly more expensive albeit far away, but the number blows up after that. Northern Illinois is 45 minutes closer to downtown Chicago than UWM, but it’s a full $3,000 more expensive than UWM – if I were a Chicagoan choosing where to go to school, UWM looks like a much better value. Our Horizon League brethren at UIC pay about $6,500 more than Panthers for cost-of-attendance, and the Illini at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are paying almost $8,000 more for school than students at UWM.

We have the advantage. We are cheaper and closer for Chicago natives than most of our competitors. It’s a base of students that is very large and can help us grow our enrollment.

Basketball can help in this pursuit. Every season, the Milwaukee Panthers play two games against UIC. Each game brings our name up in the Chicago media. This is on social media, in the newspapers, on television and on the radio. Most of those mentions are only in passing since UIC’s profile in the area is low. However, it’s still a mention, which anyone in marketing will tell you is a plus. Another plus is that those games are broadcast on ESPN 1000, a 50,000-watt station that reaches a large amount of people. It lets the people of Chicagoland know there’s a basketball team kicking in the teeth of their Flames, and they represent a school just a couple hours north.

What if the Panthers were playing more than UIC? Since Loyola’s departure from the Horizon League in 2013, Milwaukee’s Chicago games could have been cut in half. But Rob Jeter took a series of buy-games and a home-and-home with DePaul. While the Blue Demons aren’t much better than Loyola, they do have a higher profile in Chicago.

We talked earlier about the growth of UWM’s Illinoisan population over the past ten years. That growth was mostly steady until 2011, when it started to spike – in 2011 the number was hovering around 700, and today is almost 1,150. That’s a big change that can be attributed to any number of things, but basketball may be a big part of that.

When considering basketball’s role, it’s important to note that Milwaukee played a great many Chicago teams in the 2010-11 season that preceded the Illinoisan student hike. Milwaukee had two games with UIC, but also with Loyola as they were a member of the conference. They also started their run of games with DePaul, which ended last season. They finished the year by falling to Northwestern in the NIT. In addition to those, the Panthers were a couple shots away from their first victory over Marquette in nearly a century.

Why does a game against Marquette count for Chicago? Well, even though Marquette is in Milwaukee, more than half of its students and the wide majority of their alumni come from the greater Chicago area. This means that the Chicago media consider Marquette a home team, and cover them the same as they cover Notre Dame, another school that carries a large Chicagoan population. The Sun-Times and Tribune cover Marquette as a home team because the people of Chicago see them that way. Adding the Marquette game in there, the Milwaukee Panthers played a grand total of seven games with Chicago teams. That’s almost half a conference schedule.

More than half of the university’s 2005-2014 increase in Illinoisan enrollment came together after the 2011 NIT season in which the Panthers played seven Chicago games. Just three short years eclipsed the previous six, and there’s a laughably easy case to make that basketball had a big hand in increasing Illinoisan student enrollment – an enrollment that is much easier to retain than its local counterpart.

The best thing UWM can do for itself moving forward is start tying all of these things together – student recruitment, alumni engagement and basketball can all help each other.

How do we do that? Well, recognizing that the basketball team is the marketing arm of the university and a tool for recruitment is a start. Chancellor Mone and his administration in Chapman Hall may not be keen on the idea that basketball drives enrollment, but the numbers are there. We already know that the Sweet 16 and second-round NCAA Tournament appearances boosted enrollment in just a few short years from 26,000 to around 32,000 and dropped selectivity rate from 92% down to 65% (these are general, not exact numbers). Those increases happened without major changes to the academic side of the university between 2005 and 2008. Basketball has a huge effect on the American university; we’re an example just as our friends are at Marquette.

Once we recognize basketball’s importance to the future of the university, then we can use it as a weapon in the fight for prospective students. Illinoisans are seeing Milwaukee as an option more and more; with a diminishing college-age population in Wisconsin, it’s essential that we relentlessly pursue college-age students in the greater Chicago area.

Scheduling is the first way to do that. The university should step in and help Rob Jeter’s staff put together several series with Chicago-based teams. DePaul and Northwestern are winnable high-major games that need to be on the schedule annually. The Loyola series should be renewed. Milwaukee may want to consider paying Chicago State to play here, or perhaps signing a 2-for-1 with two games in Milwaukee and one on their campus. More games with Notre Dame and Marquette are attractive if the numbers are right – with 72% of home teams winning in college basketball, I’d never sign another 4-for-1 as we did with Marquette in 2007. But a 2-for-1 is doable, or even a home-and-home if the right argument is made – Notre Dame, now outside Marquette’s conference, could get back to Milwaukee for the occasional game.

Putting all these teams on our schedule allows the university to save travel costs. The men’s basketball budget will have less stress on its belt if low-cost road trips to Northern Illinois, DePaul, Loyola and Notre Dame are on the schedule.

These also help attendance, since the university would be playing more games against names people recognize. Fans of Chicago-based schools will travel, selling some tickets and increasing awareness of our university as they see how nice is the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena (seriously, can we cut that shorter? Milwaukee Arena, Panther Arena, I’d even take UWM Arena over the mouthful that is a 12-syllable name).

Most importantly, every one of those games will get coverage in Chicago, adding to the impressions of our university in the minds of Chicagoans. Games that are broadcast in Chicago on television and radio also provide the university with a chance to target their advertising dollars; at least on television, sometimes those contracts include a set number of commercials for the university as part of the deal. On the radio, they’d be somewhat cheaper. This will help admissions as they recruit students from that area, students that are more likely to stay at UWM through graduation.

Beating these teams soundly will only increase our support, both locally and in Chicago. That support will help us recruit and retain students.

Down the road, Milwaukee may want to consider changing conferences. The Horizon League has been a good home to us for twenty years, but the Panthers should pounce at an opportunity to join the Missouri Valley Conference if one opens up. The conference games against Illinois schools would jump from two to eight. The games in Chicago against UIC would be replaced with Loyola, and there would be six more games against schools from Illinois – Bradley (Peoria), Illinois State (Norma) and Southern Illinois (Carbondale) are all in the state and get coverage in the Chicago media market. Existing in the same conference as UW-Green Bay does elevate them and lower us to the level of other UW schools in the minds of Wisconsinites, so there’s other advantages in moving up to the MVC.

The university is facing some extremely difficult times. Budget cuts have made recruiting and retaining students far more important than just a couple years ago. The smaller overall number of college-age students in Wisconsin means that the university needs to stretch out and grab students from other places. It’s easier to do that in Illinois than other states because of reciprocity, allowing students from that state to come to our school that’s closer to Chicago and cheaper than many of their in-state schools. Yet those students need to be courted, and basketball is far and away the best and easiest way for the Milwaukee brand to reach that coveted population of prospective students. Games in Chicago also provide us the opportunity to extend our outreach to alumni who have moved on, giving us the ability to strengthen their ties to the university and increase their support long after they’ve walked across the podium at Panther Arena and grabbed their degree.

There’s an oft-discussed topic among fans of college basketball. Chicago, one of the deepest recruiting talent pools in hoops, is a throne without a king. Teams from around the country come in and pluck up the best talent from Chicago because none of the local teams – Northwestern, DePaul, Loyola, UIC or Chicago State – are strong enough programs to take control. It’s a fertile recruiting ground that, if conquered, can make the wearer of its crown the king of college hoops.

My question is this: why not us? The Milwaukegan trio of Akeem Springs, Jordan Johnson and JayQuan McCloud have shown us just how great a program can be if some of the Chicago area’s better talent can find a home in one program. Our women’s soccer team used to own the Chicago area under Michael Moynihan and David Nikolic; it’s a big reason Northwestern took them from us. So it can be done – the Milwaukee Panthers can move in and take that land as their own. This team can be the driving force behind the university’s reach into our great neighbor’s deep talent pool of all students, not just those that dribble a basketball. We could wear that crown.

It would be a crown fit for a king.

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