Trahan: Ryan Field, but a little emptier

Kevin Trahan

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For all the people who knock Ryan Field for resembling a high school stadium, at least Wildcats fans can take pride in knowing the atmosphere on game day can be special.

We saw Ryan Field at its best earlier this year when Northwestern played Michigan, as the intensity of a sold-out crowd made for an outstanding atmosphere in prime time.

No, this wasn’t the same as the raucous crowds at some Big Ten stadiums, but the Cats had an evident home-field advantage nonetheless.

That’s more than anyone can say of Memorial Stadium when NU played Indiana on Saturday.

Indiana has an undergraduate enrollment of over 32,000, and while it isn’t a football school by any stretch of the imagination, such low attendance is an embarrassment. Somehow 32,000 students and the surrounding community could only fill 39,239 seats Saturday, and anyone who saw the empty rows at Memorial Stadium knows that number is inflated. There were more NU students than Indiana students during the second half, and that’s a testament to a growth of interest among Cats fans and the apathy of Hoosiers fans toward the sport.

Clearly Hoosiers fans haven’t had much to cheer about recently, and that partly explains why Memorial Stadium’s crowd is rarely a factor against opposing offenses – one of the loudest cheers of the day came when Indiana finally forced an NU punt in the fourth quarter.

The Hoosiers have long had one of the worst football programs in the Big Ten and have appeared in just one bowl game in the last 18 years. This season is no different, as Indiana is 1-8, with the one win coming against South Carolina State.

While NU has enjoyed more success recently, it has a history that is nearly as bad as Indiana’s. For that reason, NU hasn’t been immune from small crowds, but it rarely sees such a bad showing for conference games, especially from its students.

NU faces built-in disadvantages – it has the smallest undergraduate enrollment in the Big Ten, it is based in a saturated sports market and it has a small alumni base, especially locally.

Indiana has no excuse.

The University has done its part, recently renovating Memorial Stadium. Though the stadium is relatively small, seating just 52,929 fans, it’s still an impressive venue. Tickets are cheap – my friends got tickets for $5 apiece. Similar to NU and its “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” campaign, IU has placed billboards along Highway 37 asking fans to come see a game.

But as was the case with NU, attendance likely won’t improve until the Hoosiers start to put a better product on the field, and it figures to be a long rebuilding process for Indiana coach Kevin Wilson, who has started nine true freshmen this season.

Like its coach, the Indiana athletic department is in for a tough rebuilding process. It will take more than a couple winning seasons to win back an apathetic fan base, but the athletic department can learn from NU’s successes.

Because after Saturday, it’s clear that NU’s fan support has progressed and Indiana still has a long way to go – both on the field and in the stands.

Sports writer Kevin Trahan covers the Wildcats for He can be reached at