Packed house: Northwestern’s on-field success fills seats


Daily file photo by Rafi Letzter

A Northwestern football fan cheers during a home game earlier this fall. Ticket sales reportedly rose more than 50 percent for the Wildcats’ 2012 season.

Rohan Nadkarni, Assistant Sports Editor

It may be decades before the mayor of Chicago decides to dye the Chicago River purple, but right now Chicago’s Big Ten Team continues to attract new fans.

Especially this season, with the help of a talented squad fighting for a chance at the conference championship, Northwestern’s fan base has grown significantly, creating a home-field edge at Ryan Field that has been absent for decades of the school’s existence.

Half full, not half empty

During a memorable post-game news conference this season, when asked a question about that night’s game, coach Pat Fitzgerald held up his nearly finished Powerade bottle and told reporters, “This is 98 percent full, man.”

Fitzgerald may as well have been talking about Ryan Field, the Wildcats’ home turf. For many years before and even through this season, NU has dealt with swathes of empty seats at home games.

But this year, things have changed for the only private school in the Big Ten. Despite being saddled with a sub-10,000 undergraduate enrollment and the second-smallest alumni population in the Chicago area, season ticket sales rose 58 percent for the 2012 season, NU’s associate director of external affairs Mike Polisky told Crain’s Chicago Business.

“It’s critically important,” Fitzgerald said of increased fan support. “Those are some of the steps we need to continue to make in our program to get us to where we want to be. We’re very thankful for the administration and the work Mike Polisky and our season ticket sales staff are doing.”

The 2012 season represented the third-highest season ticket base since the 1990s in school history, only behind the two seasons following the Rose Bowl and the Citrus Bowl in the 1990s, said Doug Meffley, NU’s director of digital and social communications. According to Meffley, the season ticket base has grown 70 percent since 2009.

“We’re just taking the steps,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re not where we want to be yet.”

Protect this house

With the buzz of new Under Armour uniforms and the chase for an elusive bowl win heading into the season, NU saw very impressive showings at its first four home games of the season.

The Cats averaged about 31,503 fans for the games against Vanderbilt, Boston College, South Dakota and Indiana. For the first three of those games, the entire student population had yet to reach campus, with move-in day for upperclassmen not arriving until Sept. 24.

Last year, NU averaged 33,442 fans per game, but that included contests against Michigan and Penn State, two large Big Ten schools whose fans travel well. Both of those games drew more than 40,000 fans, with the match-up with Penn State also Homecoming weekend for the Cats.

Saturday’s game against Nebraska is sold out. NU also has more chances to draw big with a Homecoming match-up with Iowa and a rivalry battle with Illinois.

The effect of the growing attendance, a 38 percent increase from 2009-2011, has been twofold.

First, the heightened buzz around NU football has brought in more opportunities for the school’s athletic department. In addition to the school-wide Under Armour sponsorship, the Cats have struck lucrative deals with BMO Harris Bank and Northwestern Memorial Hospital, both of which have prominent advertising exposure at home games.

The fan support also improves the product on the field, with NU slowly gaining a home-field edge that fellow Big Ten members like Ohio State and Michigan have enjoyed for nearly their entire existence.

“We’re very thankful, first of all, for our student support,” Fitzgerald said. “We play for our students. It’s unbelievable to see that kind of support early in the year. I have a feeling they’re getting ready to ‘get it on’ on Saturday.”

Fitzgerald, who frequently speaks on campus during the week, said, “It’s a lot of fun to have that kind of chemistry and that kind of buzz. Things are starting to feel special on campus.”

Some of the first home contests of the year were special for the Cats.

NU’s home opener against Vanderbilt fell on Sept. 8, more than a week before new freshmen arrived on campus. Regardless of the very few students at school, more than 31,000 people showed up to watch the game, including a full student section.

Toward the end of the game, the skies truly opened up after on-and-off rain throughout the night, resulting a solid downpour onto the field. But the student section remained full, with those who somehow found their way to Evanston before being allowed to live on campus literally soaking up every last second of the Cats’ win over Vanderbilt.

“As an alum, definitely something I’ve noticed is the increased student support,” said Meffley, who graduated from NU in 2004. “The students arrive to games earlier than before. From where I sit up in the press box, I can see always how full the student section is.”

Rags to riches

Even with one of the largest financial endowments in the country, NU’s athletic program have operated on a different scale.

Last month, the Cats’ athletic department announced plans for new football and athletic facilities to be built on campus, a project estimated to cost more than $200 million. The plan is the first major football facilities renovation since 1996, when Ryan Field was redesigned for the 1997 season.

The increased fan support around the football team helped make catching up with other Big Ten schools a priority.

Ben Slivka, a member of the NU board of trustees who voted on the new athletic facility project, remembers the days when the Cats struggled tremendously at football.

“During my undergraduate years, we won exactly one game and tied one game,” Slivka said. “We lost all the rest.”

Although Slivka was one of the few fans who consistently showed up to football games before he graduated in 1982, he admitted to losing touch with the team while he was working, before the 1995 Rose Bowl season brought him back into the fold.

Now Slivka, a Seattle resident, is part of a group of alumni who organize watch parties to support the Cats in large groups.

“Like fans everywhere, it is more fun to watch a winning program. So when NU football is doing better, more alumni tune in and follow the team,” Slivka said. “We had 48 people at our watch party in Seattle two weeks ago for the Penn State game when we were 5-0 and ranked in the Top 25.  That may have been a new high for our watch parties in Seattle.”

All along the Clock Tower

After every NU win, students can see the Rebecca Crown Center Clock Tower lit purple for at least the next week. Current students are used to walking down Clark Street and seeing the tower shine purple. In fact, it’s tough for them to imagine a time when the team struggled.

“I think I would go to games if we still lost a lot,” Weinberg junior John Le said. “But we’ve improved a lot.”

It will still take many years for NU to reach the heights of other Big Ten schools. The Ohio States and Michigans of the conference play in large stadiums and regularly draw more than 100,000 fans to a single home game to stadiums twice the size of NU’s Ryan Field.

But at the same time, in the early 1980s, when Slivka saw the Cats win only one game in a four-year period, no one thought a college football hall-of-fame linebacker would lead the team to five straight bowl games and have a winning record for his coaching career.

Now, fans expect to not only see wins, but also post-season success. And more often than not, they walk around campus with the clock tower glowing purple.

Maybe they don’t need the Chicago River after all.