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Pope: A stronger football culture isn’t attainable for Northwestern, and that’s OK

Ben Pope, Gameday Editor

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It’s the year 2048.

A grizzled, white-haired, Bill Snyder-lookalike Pat Fitzgerald roams the Wildcats’ sidelines. Quarterback Clayton Thorson Jr. will earn a $1.5 million bonus if he completes 25 touchdown passes, and some of those will go to a tight end that Northwestern still oddly refuses to label as that. The student section, despite a capacity (5,000) that holds a ridiculous 60 percent of the student body, is packed to the brim and loudly cheering.

All of that is probably realistic except for the last sentence. That one is not, and we collectively need to stop believing that it could be.

The myth that NU students and alumni are apathetic about football is both true and false. Yes, many are, but that’s true everywhere. Many others — a roughly proportionate percentage of the overall population, compared to other Big Ten schools — do care.

This nuance is frequently misunderstood by national commentators, fellow student journalists and even Fitzgerald himself. Davis Rich of Inside NU was the latest to fall into that trap, writing in his Wednesday column that this university needs a student body “football culture” to match its sudden winning ways and ultra-fancy new facilities.

For numerous reasons, that vision is unfortunately yet simply not attainable.

NU is too small, geographically diverse and known for academics to ever replicate its Big Ten rivals’ fan support. And besides, considering the University’s inevitable disadvantages, it actually fares decently well (and far better than it used to) in the attendance department.

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It’s true: student attendance at NU football games objectively lags well behind the rest of the Big Ten, and it can certainly seem like student interest in the football team lags behind the rest of the conference, as well.

Not only does NU rank in the bottom quartile of FBS power-conference teams in overall attendance — its average of 35,853 last year ranked 58th among 65 such teams — but the student section is often the emptiest part of the stadium, with only roughly a quarter to a third of it filled (based on the eye test) on average days.

“The larger issue for Fitz and the football program … is the apathy towards athletics at Northwestern,” Rich wrote Wednesday. “The university and the donors has shown its support for the program. The students? Not so much.”

But there are three statistics that explain this phenomenon entirely on their own.

First, NU’s undergraduate population is only about 8,100; the Big Ten’s second-smallest is 20,800 (Nebraska). There just aren’t that many students to begin with, and that difference is multiplied year after year when comparing the alumni bases.

Second, only 28 percent of NU undergraduates are from Illinois; the second-smallest in-state student percentage in the conference is 50 percent (Iowa), which draws a lot from Illinois, and schools like Michigan State, Nebraska and Ohio State draw upwards of 80 percent in-state. NU simply doesn’t have the steady stream of childhood Cats fans coming to campus that other Big Ten schools do.

Third, NU’s student section can hold 5,000 students, representing 60 percent of the student body; only one other student section in the Big Ten (Ohio State) is designed to hold more than half the student body. A smaller student section would make the student body seem a lot more present.

Those undergraduate demographics aren’t going to change — they’re tied to NU’s exclusivity and desirability — and even if the student section was reduced from three official sections to two (which wouldn’t be a bad idea), it wouldn’t actually change student interest. NU’s academic exclusivity plays a role itself, too, since students often choose to come to Evanston without thinking much about the teams they’d supposedly be supporting.

Plus, it’s important to realize what the broader takeaway of that third statistic is. “To be blunt, a majority Northwestern’s student body does not care about the football program,” Rich wrote in his column. In actuality, the majority of students at almost every college in the country don’t care about their school’s football program.

There are some obvious methods to draw more students nonetheless, but predictably, they all involve alcohol. Allowing student tailgating next to the stadium, which was permitted in decades past, could help, but it would require organizers to turn a major blind eye towards underage drinking in order to actually pull thirsty pregamers away from backyard tailgates. Selling beer in-stadium to those of age is a policy some schools with weak attendance, like Purdue and Wake Forest, have recently adopted, but athletic director Jim Phillips told The Daily in spring that such an idea was not on the table at NU.

These inescapable differences in undergraduate demographics carry over to the alumni base. Five of the 13 other Big Ten schools (Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Purdue) have more undergraduate students from Illinois than NU, a school in the state, does. Many of those students will return to live in Illinois after graduation, and others still will be attracted by jobs in Chicago, the Midwest’s biggest city. Michigan State and Michigan are mere day-trips away from Evanston, too. Of course Ryan Field turns red, green or yellow when certain opponents come to town — that’s just what happens to all small schools in major conferences.

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The pointless and hopelessly ambitious debate about NU fans’ supposed apathy is especially annoying to me because it takes attention away from the fact that the school, for what it is, actually has a decent “football culture.”

When ranking the 65 power-conference schools not by raw attendance average but by ratio of attendance to student body size, NU actually ranks 10th. In other words, NU is in the top quartile in terms of drawing fans relative to its student — and thus also alumni — population.

Even when going by purely raw attendance, NU still ranks a respectable ninth out of 17 when compared to other FBS private schools. Duke, for example, officially drew 8,000 fewer fans per game than NU did last season, and in the two schools’ meetings against each other, NU out-draws the Blue Devils tremendously. Vanderbilt (31,341), Syracuse (33,929), Boston College (35,924), Baylor (43,830) and TCU (44,080) are in the same range, too. And if academic peers with FCS programs are brought into the conversation, NU looks even more impressive — for example, average attendance at Ivy League football games last fall was just over 8,000, total.

Stanford, as an academically selective private school with a great football program, is often presented as the ideal model for NU football. Admittedly, it’s a relatively fair (and unflattering) comparison, even though the Cardinal aren’t without their own attendance concerns.

If NU turned into a perennial top-15 power like Stanford, Ryan Field attendance and on-campus “football culture” would probably marginally increase. But then again, Stanford is the ultimate private-school-in-a-power-conference success story. Nobody criticizes NU academics for not equalling Harvard — sometimes, near the best is good enough.

Plus, this “near the best” placement is a relatively new one for NU, and the trend over time suggests that NU may keep climbing in attendance averages. As recently as 2009, the average crowd size was below 25,000 — 10,000 fewer than in 2017.

With a number of marquee programs coming to Ryan Field this autumn, it will be interesting to see if the numbers go up even further — and if there are bigger splotches of purple amidst the reds of Nebraska and Wisconsin and blues of Michigan and Notre Dame.

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The headline of this column suggests that a stronger football culture isn’t attainable for Northwestern.

It’s true, but even that paints a slightly negative picture. Perhaps it would’ve been more accurate to say that Northwestern’s football culture is not weak, but rather proportional.

That latter idea seems less intriguing — thus why it’s not the headline — but it’s really the point. There’s really nothing too concerning about NU fan support: It’s close to, if not above, what one would expect given the University’s dynamics.

The overarching and frustratingly well-worn argument that NU student and alumni enthusiasm for football is lacking, and must increase moving forward, is a perhaps well-meaning but ultimately unrealistic interpretation of the situation.

For plenty of inescapable (and, in some cases, admirable) reasons, the Cats fanbase will never grow to rival the Wisconsins and Michigans of the world. NU could build a billion-dollar facility and win a national title, and that would remain the case.

Email: benjaminpope2019@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @benpope111

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