Haleem: NU should market discounted student section football season tickets to non-students

Naasir Haleem, Op-Ed Contributor

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At the unveiling of Ryan Fieldhouse on Saturday, April 7, a reporter from Rivals.com asked coach Pat Fitzgerald how the addition of the new venue changed the expectations for Northwestern Football. The answer the reporter received was both unexpected and telling.

“Our attendance isn’t top 15 in the country. Our atmosphere isn’t top 15 in the country,” Fitzgerald exclaimed. “We gotta get our students to come out and get things going.”

The frustration that Fitzgerald feels about the student body’s apathy toward football is understandable. The football team has won 27 games in the past three years. That win total ranks better than teams such as Michigan State, Notre Dame and Auburn.

Yet fan attendance at Ryan Field has been poor to say the least. The average attendance in 2017 for NU home games was 35,853, according to an NCAA report. That falls short of the 49,256-seat capacity of Ryan Field. It also does not help that most NU home games are attended by as many — if not more — fans who support NU’s opponent on any given Saturday.

For this reason, offering discounted season passes to students from Chicago-area colleges that don’t have football teams could serve to benefit the atmosphere at Ryan Field tremendously. Simply having more people fill Ryan Field would lead to a noisier, more exciting experience than the typical sleepy games. In addition, a significant influx of students to the student section would force opponents to actually contend with crowd noise, something they often do not have to deal with today.

There are many colleges in close proximity to NU without football teams that could adopt ours. Take Loyola University Chicago for example, the school that captured the hearts of the nation during their run to the Final Four. While the Loyola campus may not have had a deep emotional investment in college sports prior to March Madness, it is likely that many students would enjoy that experience again — this time on the gridiron.

It would be advantageous for the University to capitalize on this newfound interest and offer non-NU students an opportunity to adopt a college football team they could support every Saturday. This same idea applies to universities such as DePaul and Northeastern Illinois — other colleges in Chicago that do not have football teams. Many of these schools have the option of taking the ‘L’ up to Evanston for every gameday.

As it stands, NU has the twin handicaps of being the smallest school in the Big Ten by a sizable margin and having a student population that is frankly not that invested in football. This means that after graduation there are fewer NU alumni that will attend football games compared to alumni of rival Big Ten schools. It does not matter how much success the football team has — if there are not enough dedicated fans in the immediate area, Ryan Field will remain sparsely populated every fall.

This rings true for other schools of NU’s size and academic caliber. For example, in 2016, Stanford averaged 44,142 fans in attendance, which did not fill their 50,424-seat stadium. This is despite the fact that Stanford fields consistently good-to-great football teams that often deliver success to their fans.

In a larger sense, programs across the country have to face and respond to falling attendance, especially from college students. In 2017, attendance across all Football Bowl Subdivision schools — which are essentially large colleges — saw their attendance drop by an average of 3.2 percent as part of an ongoing trend. By diversifying who is able to attend Wildcats football games, NU could buck this trend.

NU has tried to market itself as being “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” Geographically, this is true: NU is the closest Big Ten team to Chicago. However, in practice, there are far more fans of most other Big Ten teams in the Chicago area, save for Rutgers and Maryland, than NU fans. To combat this, NU should create fans in the city by opening up our stadium to them and enriching their college football experiences.

In the short term, NU should reach out to other local colleges to gauge the interest of their students in this type of partnership. It is not certain whether students at other schools would be willing to support a team that does not fly their colors, but it is definitely worth a shot and could pay remarkable dividends in the long run. Even if NU were to offer these season passes to outside students at a highly discounted rate, the profits would account for revenue that NU is not getting regardless.

It does not make sense that NU continues to disadvantage itself by primarily trying to encourage apathetic students to attend football games. Nor will fans of other college teams suddenly switch their allegiances because NU Football has a billboard on I-294. We will never achieve a “top-15 atmosphere” if we don’t put in more effort. Instead, a drastic step must be taken that would involve selling season tickets at a discounted rate to students from schools like Loyola, DePaul and others without a home college football team. These changes would make the experience of a Northwestern football game truly one to remember.

Naasir Haleem is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at naasirhaleem2020@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.