Men’s Basketball: As program struggles, Northwestern attendance lowest in Chris Collins era


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Chris Collins speaks with a referee. The Wildcats have struggled to draw fans this season.

Charlie Goldsmith, Sports Editor

Coach Chris Collins has said he has everything he needs to be successful –– a new arena and practice facility, a young core with potential and a Big Ten schedule filled with opportunities for season defining wins.

But suddenly the Wildcats are missing their fans.

Entering Saturday night’s primetime game at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Saturday against Purdue (11-10, 4-6 Big Ten), NU (6-14, 1-9) is attracting the smallest crowds of the Chris Collins era.

On pace for a second consecutive last-place finish in the Big Ten, the Cats have sold an average of 5,504 tickets per game this season, down 18 percent from the previous low point under Collins.

The previous low mark was set in Collins’ first season as NU’s head coach, the 2013-14 campaign. That year, the Cats averaged over 6,700 fans at every game. In 2019-20, NU is selling over 1,200 fewer tickets per game than the school did in 2013-14.

Even when Collins was just starting his coaching career or when NU played at the off-campus Allstate Arena, the Cats had much bigger crowds than they’ve had this season.

After Michigan State packed the 7,039-seat Welsh-Ryan Arena for a Big Ten game in December, Spartans coach Tom Izzo noted NU’s attendance problem.

“Collins has a damn good team,” Izzo said in December. “People should get out and see them. They really should, they should pack that place with purple because (Northwestern’s) got the kind of guys that’d be fun to follow.”

The Michigan State game was just one example of the smaller Northwestern fan base at games this season. NU had fewer than 6,000 fans at a game only once last season –– a December non-conference game against Chicago State. This year, the Cats have drawn fewer than 6,000 fans at eight of their 11 home games.

Since Collins was hired in 2013, NU has sold out multiple games every season, and its average attendance per-game had never dipped below 6,000 fans. That has changed this season. The Cats haven’t sold more than 6,750 tickets for a single game in the 2019-20 campaign and regularly have empty spaces in the crowd.

Graph by Charlie Goldsmith

Based on the attendance figures announced by the athletic department at each game, NU sold a total of 121,580 last season its first year in the new arena, and the Cats have sold more than 110,000 tickets in each of the previous six seasons. This year, the Cats are on pace to sell just over 88,000 tickets over their 16-game home schedule.

Graph by Charlie Goldsmith

As interest in the program wanes, Collins said he still sees a bright future.

“I think that everybody can see that this is a really good young core of guys that needs to stick together,” Collins said in December. “The facilities are in place, it’s been amazing what President (Morton) Schapiro and (athletic director Jim) Phillips and everybody has done to have a world-class Trienens Performance Center and the arena that we have.”

Saturday’s game against the Boilermakers will be NU’s last primetime weekend home game this season. Welsh-Ryan Arena has been especially empty during the week, and the Cats drew fewer than 5,300 fans for a home game against Maryland last Tuesday night. The crowd against the Terrapins was NU’s smallest for a Big Ten game in the Collins era.

“Everything is in place for us to be successful, and now it’s about getting to that point where we can really contend,” Collins said. “That’s the goal for all of us here because you don’t put those resources in if you don’t think you can win. That’s why I love being here, because everyone’s in it to win.”

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Twitter: @2021_charlie