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Billboard strategy aimed at turning big-city heads

CHAMPAIGN — The sign proudly boasts: “This is our city. Fightingillini.com.”

It’s not in Champaign, or even Chicago, where a certain private university has staked its claim as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” (rankling Illini faithful).

This is a billboard near the St. Louis airport, featuring a dozen football recruits from the Gateway City who are now playing for the Illini.

It’s part of a campaign launched in 2016 by the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics to “better brand ourselves” in St. Louis and Chicago, said Cassie Arner, associate athletic director who oversees marketing.

Those are the two biggest metropolitan areas in terms of University of Illinois alumni, with more than 150,000 from the Urbana campus in Chicagoland alone, she said. St. Louis has also becoming a “recruiting hotbed” for the Illini, she said.

Athletic Director Josh Whitman and Senior Associate AD Marty Kaufmann wanted to have a bigger presence in both cities, Arner said.

Athletics has rented four billboards in St. Louis and seven in Chicago this fall, from August through December. The cost for the five-month ad buy was about $100,000, Arner said.

DIA also buys billboards year-round in Champaign-Urbana worth about $53,000, she said.

The cost of each differs based on production costs and location, but it ranges from $1,600 to $2,600 a month, she said. The UI designs them and pays the companies to print and install them, on top of the monthly rental fees.

Fall is a heavy time for ticket sales for both football and basketball, Arner said, acknowledging that it’s hard to quantify how much the billboards may boost sales.

“I think it brings a lot of pride,” and may prompt drivers to engage with the program in some way, she said.

The billboards are along interstates or high-traffic areas, including several on I-294 in Chicago.

In metro St. Louis, there’s one by the airport, one on the Illinois side and one close to the Enterprise Center for the Dec. 23 Bragging Rights game against Missouri.

The “This is our city” slogan is new, Arner said. “We have quite a few athletes from St. Louis,” and the number is growing, she said.

Has there been any pushback from certain Missouri teams?

“No one’s said anything,” she said.

There are too many recruits from the Chicago area to feature on a billboard. The messages there are simpler: a big Block I and this year’s “Join the fight” theme, or a giant football helmet.

“People are going so fast up there, it needs to be bold branding that you can see from far away and you can read more easily,” Arner said.

The Champaign-Urbana billboards — four print and three digital — advertise all Illinois sports. The digital messages rotate among several locations around town to reach different drivers, and can be changed easily — to celebrate a win the night before, for example, Arner said.



Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).