Commentary: Attendance at Northwestern
by Jonathan Hodges

Attendance at Northwestern football games is something brought up quite routinely during the month of September when the number drifts downwards into MAC-like territory.  This year it has hit a historic low point with the Northwestern vs. Northeastern attendance of 16,199 - the lowest number in at least a decade.  In fact, anecdotally, this number is even lower than attendance numbers from the "dark ages" of NU football when a win was nowhere to be seen for 'Cats fans.  Out of the attendance numbers that I have access to (dating back to 1997), the previous low was 20,108 (vs. New Hampshire last season), and prior to that was 20,115 vs. Ohio in 2005).

One can argue that the Northeastern game was in fact a "perfect storm" for bad attendance: an opponent that is even smaller than NU in terms of enrollment and alumni, the fact that Northeastern is relatively distant (not many alumni in Chicago) and is not a football or athletics-oriented school, a holiday (Labor Day) weekend with many fans and ticket holders out of town, other sports options in town, including baseball game(s) and the Iowa contest at Soldier Field a little later in the day, the game being at least 3 weeks before student move in (meaning virtually no students on campus, including NUMB), and finally NU coming off of a 4-8 2006 season which didn't do much to excite 'Cats fans.  This all led to the dismal attendance figure listed above, and thankfully NU shouldn't see such a combination for at least some time (next year NU plays Syracuse and SIU early - both of whom either have larger fan bases and/or closer proximity to NU).

Below are some interesting numbers regarding NU attendance over the past decade.

Northwestern Home Game Attendance (1997-2006)*

Games: 58
Average: 32,426
Total Attendance: 1,880,703

Average Big Ten Attendance: 35,408
Average Non-Conference Attendance: 26,760

Sellouts (8) @ 47,129 or 47,130: 1997 Michigan State, 1997 Penn State, 1998 Michigan, 1998 Ohio State, 2000 Michigan, 2004 Ohio State, 2005 Michigan, 2006 Ohio State.

Season - Games - Average Attendance
1997 - 6 - 40,148
1998 - 5 - 41,173
1999 - 6 - 30,890
2000 - 6 - 34,267
2001 - 5 - 34,743
2002 - 6 - 27,188
2003 - 6 - 28,763
2004 - 6 - 28,408
2005 - 6 - 32,527
2006 - 6 - 27,996

Largest Non-Conference Attendance: 1998 vs. Duke (40,178)

Smallest Big Ten Attendance: 2006 vs. Illinois (22,242)

*Includes Northwestern "home" game at Soldier Field vs. Oklahoma in 1997 Pigskin Classic (attendance: 36,804), but excludes 1997 Wisconsin and 1997 Purdue games as attendance information was missing from data source.

As noticeable from the above stats, wins equal more attendance (in that season and following season - look at the lingering effects of the 1995 and 1996 season all the way until 1998, a season when NU posted only 3 wins - with zero in Big Ten play.  Also, a visit by either OSU or Michigan, bringing hordes of fans along with, is always a boon to attendance (see 1998 season when they came to Evanston in back to back weeks).  Amazingly, despite a relatively large average attendance drop off over the past few years (outside of the 2005 bowl season), NU has 3 consecutive years with at least one sellout.


So, why does NU have such a large issue with attendance.  I'll rattle off my reasons here:

1. Northwestern is a small, private school.   With only 7,500 undergraduates and a private status, NU doesn't have a lot of alumni period, and many of those are spread across the country and the world.  Every Big Ten school except for Penn State has a larger alumni base in the Chicago area, which doesn't come as that much of a surprise.  And as a small private school, NU doesn't garner the casual fan support of the average Big Ten state school.  While size and status of the school does not preclude the football team from success (look in the mirror or at the likes of Wake Forest just last season - and they have just over 4,000 undergraduates), it does mean a much smaller fan base.  While there are exceptions (most notably Notre Dame) - those exceptions have been built up over a century of football, something a school like Northwestern can't turn around and repeat over night.

2. Chicago is a pro sports town.  Listen to sports talk on the radio or watch it on TV - during the summer it's about the Sox and Cubs.  During the fall it's da Bears.  Winter it's the Bulls (although I heard there is a hockey team that plays at the United Center from time to time as well).  Well, during the winter and summer it's da Bears too.  Drive around town and see the Bulls/Cubs/Bears/Sox paraphernalia hanging/waving/displayed everywhere.  Sure there are a few college fans around but pro sports is where it's at.  And nationwide one sees a similar trend - particularly targeted at the large "metro" areas (PS: it's all about the TV ratings).  It has been noted on NU message boards that prior to the NFL takeover of the nation's sports fans, NU games were the place to be.  Look at pictures of games from the 1950s and 1960s and see (winning helps too, but still - those games were packed - and that was with an expanded seating of 55,000 at Dyche).  They even advertised Bears and Cardinals (that other pro football team) at NU games of all places.  NUMB was under the direction of two pioneers of marching band techniques - which drew a crowd itself.  Now it's all about the commercialization of the game, TV ratings, and those highly paid players (no, we're not talking about OSU here).

3. NU athletics marketing is not very good.  Yes, Kellogg is one of the top business schools in the country year after year, but NU athletics marketing is still lacking.  Things have improved slightly over the 2002-2003 seasons "paint the town purple" campaign that looked like a Microsoft Paint drawing (you know, that free program with Windows), but NU doesn't seem willing to take that next big step to get people in the seats.  I'm talking about real promotions (not the "throw the nerf football through the uprights and win an American/United lapel pin") and discounted tickets (not the "sit in the crappiest seats ever (south end zone) for half price against opponents you've probably never heard of!").  The hefty price alone prevents the casual fans and families from coming around - and although seat prices are in line with the rest of the Big Ten, attendance is not.  This begs for some creativity and out of the box thinking - tiered seat pricing, more enticing packages, anything!

4. Northwestern still must prove itself to be a consistent winner.  The 1995, 1996, 2000, and even 2005 seasons did go a long way to put NU on the map and show some sort of consistency, BUT there are still those low points between there (3 wins in 1998, 1999, 2002) that drive off the fans.  Wins bring the crowds, and right now NU seems to be moving in that direction - at least in the scheduling department by putting win-able games on deck (although not guaranteed - nobody would say that after UNH last season or UM vs. App. St. this year).  I hope as much as every other Wildcat fan to see a consistent winner and bowl appearances from NU virtually every season.

5. Northwestern is on the quarter system.  This means classes for the fall quarter don't start until the end of September and students don't arrive on campus until a week before then.  This means no students and no NUMB at early non-conference games.  Due to NCAA and Big Ten scheduling limitations ( e.g. Labor Day weekend until the weekend prior to Thanksgiving) NU doesn't have much flexibility in scheduling, and home dates are still more profitable and better for ratcheting up wins - especially since getting to bowl eligibility is so important.  Barring an expensive and improbably switch to semesters, don't look for this to change any time soon.


The number one thing Northwestern can do, in my insignificant opinion, is bring out the differences that make Northwestern and the entire Wildcat community different.  This means a smaller more intimate venue, a solid tailgate atmosphere (including Wildcat Alley), a great marching band in NUMB, a tradition-rich history, and other things that make for a great gameday atmosphere.  It means innovation for marketing and getting Northwestern's name out there, it means connecting with alumni, it means innovative ticket pricing schemes.  It also means winning.  I think that this past week's game was a wake up call for anyone not paying attention (fans and administrators alike) and that something out of the ordinary must be done to address attendance.  In recent years NU has made steps in the right direction ( e.g. "athletic fee" now included in undergraduate tuition - meaning free attendance for NU students - which has brought up student attendance at games in the past couple years), but now it is time for leaps.

As diehard Wildcat fans, I am sure the readers of HailToPurple are well aware of the situation and are in fact the ones actually attending the games.  Now it's time to spread the "Purple Fever" to fellow alumni who have fallen off the bandwagon or those neutral parties in the office who enjoy football but don't seem to have any particular allegiance.  And of course it means supporting the 'Cats early and often - and attending games at Ryan Field as often as possible (if I can make it to 40 consecutive games, others can muster at least a couple games a year).  We know NU football is one of the best values in sports now it's time to get people there to experience it.

Editor's postscript: Jonathan mentions home attendance records dating from 1997.  I have additional records, including all games in the 1990s and most in the '80s.  No home game attendance in the 1990s dropped below 20,000.  Of the records I have from the 1980's (I'm missing individual game attendance for 1980, 1987, and 1989), none dipped below 20,000.  One might have to go back to 1979, when several home games dropped below 15,000 for the first time in modern history.

Jonathan poses some very worthwhile ideas to help boost attendance; in addition to these, NU really needs to direct efforts specifically at the three separate pools of potential attendees: students, alumni and non-alumni fans.  NU has definitely taken the right steps in the last few years to increase student attendance.  As for alumni, NU needs a direct marketing campaign, targeted to those alumni who live within 100 miles of Evanston and are not season ticket holders.  NU should send any such alumnus a package full of info and incentives-- maybe even a promotional DVD.  Finally, the non-alumni fans are the most important group, and yet the most easily overlooked.  It is this group that helped NU attendance thrive in the 1950s and early 1960s; it is this group that NU has lost and must regain.  Here is where Chicagoland media are so important.  The (unlikely) return of a televised coach's show and the improvement of relations with Chicago media are critical elements to rebuilding NU's fan base among its neighbors and among the casual fans.

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

Previous jhodges commentary

jhodges' commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of HailToPurple.com.