Warren’s World: Northwestern can’t get it right in trying to get students to games

Welsh-Ryan+Arena.+Northwestern+has+struggled+attracting+students+to+its+games+this+season.

Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Welsh-Ryan Arena. Northwestern has struggled attracting students to its games this season.

Peter Warren, Sports Columnist

The place to be Monday night was Welsh-Ryan Arena. The No. 19 Northwestern women’s basketball team was playing at home for only the second time in three weeks and were one of the hottest teams in the country heading into the game.

But as my friends and I returned to campus, we weren’t talking about the incredible performance of Veronica Burton or the electrifying shooting of Lindsey Pulliam or the tuxedo the Michigan State manager was wearing. We were talking about what one fan called “a marketing failure.”

For the first time all season, the athletic department went big with the promotions at a women’s basketball game. That meant free Chick-fil-A and a white long-sleeve shooting shirt with Northwestern basketball scripted in purple on the front. While the department was at least a month late on putting together a big game day promotion for women’s basketball, my friends and I were excited about it all day.

We got to the game about 30 minutes early, and walked to the concourse to pick up our treats. The Chick-fil-A was there, but the shirts were not. Knowing that they sometimes give away shirts at the half, I didn’t worry and grabbed a sandwich.

When halftime rolled around, I went to get a shirt. However, I was not given one. None of my friends were. We dumbfoundingly were told we needed to have a voucher. No one told us anything about a voucher –– not the person who scanned our Wildcards, the person who handed out the Chick-fil-A or the social media posts advertising the game. And we weren’t the only ones to miss the message. As others got shirts, plenty of people stood around the table, looking confused and angry.

Even with the Wildcats up 20 and without a shirt, I stayed until the end of the game with my friends. And even then, we didn’t immediately head for the exits like most fans, staying for the entirety of the fight song and waiting until both teams left the floor. That was the biggest mistake we made.

When we walked to the shuttle stop, we saw over 100 students needing a ride and one lonesome shuttle rolling onto Ashland Avenue. We tried to get on, but there was no chance.

We could have waited for another shuttle, but that was the only shuttle. It was past 10 o’clock. It had been three hours since we had left for the game. We all had work we had put off to be there, and waiting an unknown amount of time for a shuttle was impractical. So we called a Lyft and headed back. As we sat in the Lyft, we were frustrated, annoyed and disappointed.

And it wasn’t the first time.

Two winters ago, the wrestling team held a promotion that featured Chick-fil-A and a giveaway clothing item: a white crewneck with “Pack Patten” blazed across the chest. As I walked up Sheridan Road to Patten, I saw people walking south with the sweatshirt over their shoulder and sandwiches in their hands. By the time I got there — 30 minutes before the match started — they were all out of both. And unlike most of the people who received the freebies, I stayed and watched the Cats defeat ranked Rutgers.

Then in November 2018, the men’s basketball team hosted Georgia Tech for the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. It was the first game of the year where the team whipped out its beautiful gothic threads. So in conjunction with the uniforms, they held a gothic crewneck giveaway. This time, I got there more than 35 minutes before, and once again, I left with nothing.

I’ve talked with others over the years who have also left these games empty-handed. It is incredibly frustrating to have incidents like these happen, especially when many students grab a shirt and immediately leave. It feels like a slap in the face to those who stay for the games and are constant supporters of the teams.

I understand it can be difficult to estimate how many people will show up to a game, especially on a campus like this one. And it is impossible to know who is going to stay for the game or just take a shirt and leave. But, why not always overestimate and have more shirts than necessary? The extras can always be repurposed.

If there is going to be a voucher system, it needs to be made abundantly clear beforehand. Because people aren’t going to be looking or asking for something they don’t know exists.

If there are going to be game day shuttles, there needs to be enough ready at the end of the game to take all of the students back to campus, not just a group while others wait in the freezing cold.

Last week, I opined about how more people should attend women’s sports, and two weeks ago my colleague Charlie Goldsmith wrote about the shrinking crowds at men’s basketball games. The lack of fans — especially student supporters — is a problem for the athletic department. Promotions like last night’s can solve some of these woes.

As the old business adage goes, you can’t overpromise and underdeliver.

So at Wednesday’s men’s basketball game against Michigan — where fans are being promised free hats, shirts and food — I hope they have enough. Because if not, how will Northwestern get those same students in the door again?

Peter Warren is a Medill junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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