Commentary: Attendance Diatribe
by Jonathan Hodges

With the 2008 regular season now squarely in the rear view mirror for Northwestern, it is an appropriate time to review the 'Cats' home attendance, which averaged 28,590 this past season.  While not as bad as last season's historically low average (24,598 - the lowest in over a decade), the Wildcats didn't exactly pack their house in 2008, despite a 9-win regular season (NU went 5-2 at home).  And it's not like NU had horrible home opponents either, with the home slate consisting of BCS-conference member Syracuse, in-state Southern Illinois, Ohio, and Big Ten opponents Michigan State, Purdue (homecoming), Ohio State, and in-state rival Illinois.  Northwestern did rack up a sellout for the OSU game (its first since OSU visited in 2006), but attendance was a bit disappointing for the other 3 conference games - never cracking 35,000 despite a hot team and nearby Big Ten opponents.

After last season's "perfect storm" of poor attendance, though, a slight bump was at least a step forward.  But the low home attendance numbers didn't do the Wildcats any favors come bowl selection time, as NU got "jumped" by Iowa in the bowl selection order as the Outback Bowl took the Hawkeyes, leaving NU to the Alamo (NU had one more overall win than Iowa, and a head-to-head victory in Iowa City).  Although Northwestern has traveled well to bowls and done a great job selling its allotment for recent bowl games and putting purple in the stands, it is very difficult to get by an average home attendance that ranked 78th in I-A/FBS this season, and a 60.66% home capacity that ranked 100th (that is out of 119 teams; if transitioning Western Kentucky were included, NU would fall to 101st).  And, of course, with many of those games being televised nationally, it is difficult to hide the empty stands.

Now, the statistics.  I have crunched the numbers since 1997, although *note that the 1997 number includes the "Pigskin Classic" game against Oklahoma at Soldier Field, which was considered an NU home game, but excludes the 1997 game against Wisconsin and the 1998 game against Purdue, as statistics for those games were not available.

Northwestern Home Game Attendance (1997-2008)

Games: 72
Average: 31,291
% of Capacity: 66.39%
Sellouts: 9 @ 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, 2008 Ohio State.
Max: 47,130 (sellout)
Min: 16,199 (vs. Northeastern, 2007)

Average Big Ten Attendance: 34,762
Maximum Big Ten Attendance: 47,130 (sellout)
Minimum Big Ten Attendance: 20,466 (vs. Illinois, 2006)

Average Non-Conference Attendance: 25,150
Maximum Non-Conference Attendance: 40,178 (vs. Duke, 1998)
Minimum Non-Conference Attendance: 16,199 (vs. Northeastern, 2007)

Season - Home Games (Home W-L, Overall W-L) - Average Attendance
1997* - 6 (4-3, 5-7) - 40,148
1998* - 5 (1-5, 3-9) - 41,173
1999 - 6 (2-4, 3-8) - 30,890
2000 - 6 (5-1, 8-4) - 34,267
2001 - 5 (2-3, 4-7) - 34,743
2002 - 6 (2-4, 3-9) - 27,188
2003 - 6 (2-4, 6-7) - 28,763
2004 - 6 (5-1, 6-6) - 28,408
2005 - 6 (4-2, 7-5) - 32,527
2006 - 6 (2-4, 4-8) - 27,996
2007 - 7 (4-3, 6-6) - 24,589
2008 - 7 (5-2, 9-3) - 28,590

The next question is: why?  I already discussed this question in a commentary last season, but I'll list out my reasons here, with some slightly revised explanations and order:

1. Northwestern is a small, private school:  The fact is that, as a private school, NU is not the "default" choice for Chicagoland residents to root for - that would be Illinois.  There are few, if any fans not directly connected to the university (student, alumni, staff, faculty, or family of one of those) that choose NU as "their" college football school of choice.  As a small, private school, it is difficult for many to feel connected to NU without one of those connections - meanwhile all one has to do is be in the state of Illinois to feel a connection to the large state institution down in Champaign.  And with a conference full of large state schools that garner such a following, NU is on its own.  Add to that the sheer number of alumni - and that NU's pales in comparison to that from other schools: NU's current undergrad enrollment is just north of 8,000; about a third of the next smallest Big Ten school - and the fact that NU alumni spread across the nation and the globe doesn't help bring them in for games.  Oh, and in the Chicago area, virtually every other Big Ten school has more alumni than NU.

2. Chicago is a pro sports town:  When NU's attendance numbers were much better (through the 50s and 60s), the fact is that pro sports hadn't been burned into the national consciousness, and the NFL (and, AFL, which was separate at that time) wasn't even a shadow of the behemoth it is now in terms of popularity.  One just has to turn on the local sports talk stations or watch the evening news to find out that there is always a local pro sports event and that's what people follow and like to talk about.  Some Chicagoans would love to talk about the Bears all year long, all the time.  There are 2 local baseball teams that have many avid followers.  There's the NBA's Bulls who are still just a decade away from one of the biggest dynasties in sports.  There's the resurgent Blackhawks who have a long history in the city.  And then there are the lower-tier sports teams like the Wolves, Rush, and even minor league baseball that vie for the attention of the Chicagoland area.  There is just a lot of competition in the sports arena, and the city of Chicago just doesn't consider NU one of its teams.  Therefore fans don't have much of a reason to trek up to Evanston to watch a game.

3. Northwestern must prove itself to be a consistent winner:  NU now sports a winning record just 3 times over the 12 year span listed above (that number goes up to 5 out of 14 if one includes 1995-1996), although to the 'Cats' credit, they have won 6 or more games 6 times over the 12 year span (or 8 of the last 14), which is at the very least, respectable.  But as the attencance numbers show, fans want bigtime winners, and the Wildcats will have to continue their winning ways after a solid 9-3 regular season in 2008 to draw the fans.  NU's best recent attendance by far was during and following the 1995-1996 Big Ten Championship seasons which featured a lot of wins (19 over a 2 year span) and wins over bigtime teams.  Yes, there are a lot of fairweather fans around, and the fact is that NU must win games to draw these to the games; thankfully, Fitz has NU going in the right direction and has been successful in winning games (he's currently 19-17 as head coach).

4. Northwestern is on the quarter system:  This is glaringly obvious when looking at the Big Ten versus nonconference numbers: over the 12 year span above, nonconference games average 9,612 fewer fans than conference games.  And it all comes down to the fact that the vast majority of nonconference games occur before fall quarter classes begin and undergraduates are on campus and able to attend.  That right there is a student section of about 5,000 seats sitting vacant.  And throw in NUMB, facutly, and staff who are not yet on campus, and the number grows.  Finally, there's the fact that NU brings in few, if any, big-name opponents to draw the casual football fan, and often times is forced to bring in teams from long distances that make their traveling party relatively small.  Yes, NU needs wins over lesser teams to get to bowls (NU relied on a relatively easy nonconference schedule in 2008 to get a hot 4-0 start on its way to 9 wins), but filling the stands remains an issue, especially without a campus buzz on which to rely.

5. Ticket Prices:  Without a large, rabid fanbase in the area, NU has marketed itself as a family-friendly destination for the multitude of families in the nearby Chicago suburbs, but the fact is that at $50/ticket for Big Ten games, the cost of attending a game is a huge barrier for such fans.  Even for the casual fan, such a price is difficult to justify, and I've seen first hand that this sticker-shock prevents people from coming to games.  There are some steps in the right direction, like lower pricing for nonconference games, half-price endzone seats for most games, and "take a kid to the game day," but the barrier is still there and NU should take a concerted effort to lower prices for games with lower anticipated attendance (i.e. nonconference games) and/or get creative with ticket pricing schemes to bring in casual fans.  Note that new AD Jim Phillips has said that the ticket prices will be evaluated going into 2009.

6. NU Marketing & Gameday Atmosphere:  First, I would like to credit AD Phillips in what he's already done to change things in the NU athletic department.  This season, he's been actively trying to get more feedback from fans in the form of a gameday fan survey at nusports.com, an after-season survey about the game atmosphere sent to anyone who has an email on file at the athletic department (anyone who's bought tickets and supplied an email address), and even monitoring message boards and soliciting comments from fans at tailgates and other events.  But the fact is that improvement is still needed and certain aspects still frustrate fans who attend games; one of the most obvious is the concession stands that routinely run out of certain foods and/or drinks during the game.

I realize that I list few, if any, answers here and that there are multiple things over which NU has no control (e.g. the fact that it's a small, private school - which is not going to change, and the fact that Chicago is a pro sports town), but there are areas for improvement, and it is nice to see the athletic department taking steps in the right direction.  And, of course, NU winning 9 games for only the 5th time in school history in the 2008 regular season should do nothing but help matters.  I know that I am proud to be an NU season ticket holder and am also glad every time I extend my home attendance streak (currently at 53 games), and hopefully more fans will follow and help pack the house sometime soon.  There was definitely a lot of campus buzz this season, including the calls for a "Purple Haze," and hopefully the recent success of the Wildcats will help build a generation of Northwestern football fans who will return and support the 'Cats - something that has been missing for a couple of decades due to the failures of the "dark ages" and fans who, at that time, expected to lose.  Hopefully what we see now is the foundation of continued success and increasing popularity of Northwestern football.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.