Outstanding Young Alumni Award Winner 2009
For Brad Zibung, The Heckler was just a “side project,” something to do for fun because he missed the camaraderie he had experienced in college while working at the Advance-Titan.
But it’s become much more, helping him land new jobs and opportunities — as well as a wife.
In 2000, Zibung and a friend started attending Cubs games where they would sit in the bleachers in leftfield, often yelling back and forth with the fans sitting in the rightfield bleachers. The two soon started chronicling their hijinx online, well before blogs were even a thing. Their first website, rightfieldsucks.com, was promoted as a place for Chicago Cubs fans and bleacher bums, and morphed into The Heckler in 2003.
“I was really active in theAdvance-Titan the last two or three years of school, and I really enjoyed the process of putting together a printed piece,” he said. “It was fun when you could write a column and have people talk about it. Plus, I missed the camaraderie I had with the fellow staffers. ”
Thanks to publicity from well-known media outlets including the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Reader and ESPN Radio, The Heckler’s popularity swelled in its early years. And as it grew, Zibung expanded the humorous coverage on other Chicago-related sports.
While The Heckler isn’t “as robust of an operation as it used to be,” it still offers Zibung and the other writers a chance to have fun while watching one of America’s favorite pastimes. “I just got back from the annual spring training trip out to Mesa to follow the Cubs around,” Zibung said. “I’ve been doing that for 13 years, and it really is fun since we have a good crew that comes back every year.”
The Heckler has also led to new friends and new opportunities.
But most importantly, it led to his wife, Sarah Spain, an ESPN on-air personality. “We were at a event and at the time she was working for a startup sports website and we just got to talking,” Zibung said. “We were Facebook friends for a while, and then about four or five months later, we went to a Cubs game together and the rest is history.” They married in 2016.
But the satirical website led to many other types of jobs, too. “One of our first sponsors when we launched The Heckler was StubHub.com,” Zibung recalled. They hired him in 2004, and he stayed there for 10 years, before becoming a real estate agent through a friend whom he also met through The Heckler. “It hasn’t panned out to be the financial success I had hoped it would be, but it has led to a lot of other fun and interesting opportunities,” he said.
Zibung graduated from UWO in 1999 with a journalism major and an emphasis in public relations. In May 1999, he started as a corporate communications associate for Leo Burnett in Chicago, one of the world’s largest agency networks with 85 offices and more than 8,000 employees. He worked there for five years before moving to StubHub.
Zibung was named an Outstanding Young Alumni in 2009 from UW Oshkosh for his achievements after graduation. The university recognized him for his accomplishments with The Heckler and StubHub, as well as for his involvement with charitable works and making a difference in his community.
Zibung served on the junior board for “Off the Street Club” in Chicago, Chicago’s oldest boys and girls club that serves more than 3,000 youth in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country, West Garfield Park.
“Off the Street Club has helped thousands of children,” Zibung said. “I first got involved because the organization has strong support with Chicago’s advertising community. They have a program called Third Thursdays, where once a month they would invite guests into the club.” Zibung said he still tries to go to Third Thursdays as often as his schedule allows.
Zibung credits the education and experience he received from the Journalism Department with his success. “The unique mix of the curriculum helped me be a stronger communicator,” he said. “But it also allowed me to develop a knack for doing things in a way that connects with people…”
He also credits his success to his favorite journalism professor, Dr. Julie Henderson, who has since retired. “I had quite a few classes with her and was in PRSSA. The classes I had with her were invaluable. When I am editing content for The Heckler, I can hear her in my head suggesting what I can condense or change.”
Zibung said he also has good memories of creating an anti-smoking campaign for the Bateman Competition. “We didn’t place really well, and it was grueling at times because our team wasn’t always on the same page,” he said. “But we had a lot of fun. We even got on the front page of The Northwestern because we had kids throw empty cigarette cartons into a burn barrel to demonstrate that they were going to kick the habit before they started. It was just an awesome picture.”
While he said he is happy with his accomplishments to date, Zibung knows his career will likely continue to evolve. “You either evolve or you die,” he said. “The Heckler opened up doors for me, allowing me to develop relationships with people I otherwise wouldn’t have met. Being able to connect with people and maintain those relationships is invaluable.”
His advice to students or young alumni is simple: network, network, network. “Don’t be afraid to work really hard and learn every day,” he said. “Get out there and meet people, ask questions and get to know them. Learn from everybody and maintain relationships. If you put good energy out there and try to help people out, it will come back to you.”