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Syracuse University targets Rochester in effort to expand sports brand

John Wildhack is taking a page from the Buffalo Bills and taking the show on the road. And by doing so, the Syracuse University athletic director hopes to further tap into a market that’s as essential to the sustained success of the Orange sports program as it is to the Bills.

Just as the Bills bring training camp here every summer, Wildhack hopes to bring a number of Syracuse sports-related events to Rochester, starting with Monroe Madness, an open-to-the-public fan fest featuring the SU men’s and women’s basketball teams Friday evening at 6:30 at the Blue Cross Arena. (Wegmans is the official sponsor and tickets are available for purchase there and at the Arena box office.)

“Rochester is a critical market for us,’’ Wildhack said. “We need to grow our presence and our brand there. We need to market ourselves regionally. We have a stadium that holds 50,000 for football and more than 30,000 for basketball, and if we are going to get to capacity or near-capacity, we’ve got to draw from beyond our core base in Central New York.”

The Bills came to a similar realization years ago. The reality is, without Rochester and Southern Ontario, the Bills would have been history long ago. The Buffalo area isn’t large or affluent enough to support an NFL franchise on its own, and the Bills would have been forced to relocate to a bigger market if they hadn’t expanded their reach.

Wildhack grew up in the Buffalo suburb of Kenmore, so he’s well aware of the challenges the Bills face as a franchise in the NFL’s second-smallest market (only Green Bay is smaller). He’s also friends with Russ Brandon, the former Bills CEO and marketing whiz who brought training camp to St. John Fisher University at the turn of the century in order to increase ticket sales and mine corporate dollars beyond Buffalo.

“He gave me some of his ideas and findings and it’s been extremely helpful,’’ Wildhack said. “There’s definitely commonality between what we’re trying to do and what the Bills did.”

Wildhack said SU is still compiling data to determine how many fans from the Rochester area attend Syracuse football and basketball games. Back when I was writing for the Democrat and Chronicle, we conducted surveys that determined between a quarter to a third of the spectators regularly attending SU basketball games in the Carrier Dome (now the JMA Wireless Dome) came from our circulation area. There’s also a significant Syracuse alumni population in the Rochester region, with the local alumni club among the largest, trailing only Central New York and larger-market chapters such as New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, and Atlanta.

Events such as Friday’s are ways to not only increase ticket sales and garner corporate dollars, but also aid in recruiting. Rochester-area athletes have contributed significantly to Syracuse University’s success through the decades, particularly in basketball. Roosevelt Bouie (Kendall), John Wallace (Greece), Bill Smith (Henrietta), Marty Byrnes (Pittsford), Greg Monroe (Pittsford) and Marius Janulis (Prattsburg via Lithuania) are among the numerous players who have positively impacted the Orange men’s hoops program.

The women’s program has also benefitted from Section V stars such as Red Jacket’s Beth Record, who remains the ninth leading scorer in SU women’s history and was the first Orangewoman to be drafted by the WNBA. Dyaisha Fair (Edison Tech) and Saniaa Wilson (Bishop Kearney) are among the players from our area who could be major contributors this season.

Of course, it’s much easier to sell your brand when you’re winning. The men’s team struggled to a 16-17 record last year – the first losing season in Jim Boeheim’s 46-year Hall-of-Fame coaching career. Bolstered by the return of center Jesse Edwards, guards Joseph Girard III and Symir Torrence, and forward Benny Williams, to go along with a top-15 recruiting class, the Orange men have the potential to bounce back in a big way this year.

And there are similar expectations for the women hoopsters under new coach Felisha Legette-Jack. She was an All-American basketball player for the Orangewomen in the 1980s and earlier this year became the first female athlete in school history to have her number retired. She returns to her alma mater after coaching the University at Buffalo to four NCAA tournament appearances in 10 years.

Wildhack’s timing for expanding the Rochester market also is aided by the Orange football team’s surprising 5-0 start. Syracuse currently is ranked in the top 25 in the major polls for the first time since 2019.

Wildhack said Friday night’s fan fest, which includes a meet-and-greet with SU lacrosse legend Gary Gait, will be the first of many the Orange athletic department plans for the Rochester area. There have been brainstorming sessions for similar events in other sports, including perhaps football.

Just as the Bills are regarded as Rochester’s “hometown” NFL team, Wildhack is hoping to further establish Syracuse University reputation as Rochester’s “hometown” college team.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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