Football: From the sidelines to the student section, Northwestern welcomes fans back to Ryan Field


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

A Northwestern equipment trailer sits outside Ryan Field in the days before the Wildcats’ season opener against Michigan State. NU is welcoming fans back after a year of empty stadiums.

John Riker, Sports Editor


Sophomore safety Brandon Joseph defended Northwestern’s home turf during his All-American redshirt freshman season by intercepting three passes across three starts at Ryan Field.

But the rapturous roars of a packed stadium following his game-changing plays? Not quite a reality in the 2020 season.

“Last year was my first year really playing and I had no fans there so it was kind of sad, making plays and looking up to nobody,” Joseph said. “I can’t wait to have (fans) back in Ryan Field.”

Joseph will get his wish as fans are welcomed back to the field Friday at full capacity for the team’s season opener against Big Ten rival Michigan State. From players and coaches to students and alumni, the excitement is palpable about the return of an essential aspect of college football — the home crowd.

Increased home attendance has been one of the hallmarks of the Wildcats’ rise to national prominence under coach Pat Fitzgerald. While not at the levels of traditional Big Ten powers like Ohio State and Michigan, NU’s average home attendance has almost doubled the past decade — from 24,190 in 2009, Fitzgerald’s fourth year, to 43,873 by 2018, the year the Cats reached their first Big Ten Championship Game.

Even NU’s 2019 season, which culminated in a miserable 3-9 record, saw over 37,000 fans per game.

“I’ve been going to Ryan Field since I was little,” Weinberg senior Jacob Brown said. “It’s always been an incredible experience, especially seeing it go from the student attendance it used to be.”

Brown is the president of Wildside, a student-run organization that serves as the Cats’ official student section and, according to him, “helps spread the joys that come from Northwestern athletics to more students.”

Wildside got creative last season to pursue those goals without students in the stands. While the Cats’ success on the field helped build excitement, Wildside organized its own watch parties and virtual events to boost student interest.

With Ryan Field reopening to the public in 2021, Wildside is dealing with a new challenge — drawing in NU students with an engaging and memorable gameday experience while still accounting for the pandemic. The organization has worked in tandem with the Cats’ marketing department to develop initiatives and hash out gameday logistics.

“Fandom and school spirit is something we want to emphasize,” Brown said. “There’s a lot as far as athletic fandom, but also just being proud to be a Northwestern student.”

One fan favorite incentive that could return to the mix in the thick of the Big Ten slate? Student giveaways, albeit in a limited capacity due to the diminished 2020 revenues.

The gap between NU’s academic year and football schedule created another wrinkle in Wildside’s planning. The Cats will play a pair of home games against Michigan State and Indiana State before students begin fall classes.

Still, NU plans to play in front of a packed house and hopes to reward their fans with a season-opening win after an eventful year apart.

“That’s the pageantry of college football — you look forward to full buildings and exciting crowds,” Fitzgerald said ahead of his 16th home opener as the Cats’ head coach. “For all of our players and coaches, we’ll be excited to get our Big Ten venues back rocking.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @john__riker

Related Stories:

Football: 2021 Northwestern positional breakdowns and season predictions
Football Notebook: Hunter Johnson building rapport with NU offense ahead of season opener
Football: Following Cam Porter’s season-ending injury, running backs ready for larger role in 2021