Student attendance at men’s basketball games spikes as pandemic restrictions lift


Daily file photo by Gabe Bider

Students cheer on Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena against Wisconsin on Jan. 18

Gabriela Carroll, Sports Editor

Northwestern men’s basketball played its entire 2020-21 season without fans in the building. As fans returned to Welsh-Ryan Arena for the 2021-22 season, the Wildcats sold out three games and saw significantly higher student turnout.

Gone were the days of fans writing essays in the student section — NU students packed the stands and provided a legitimate fan presence to build energy amid hordes of opposing fans from schools like Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, according to coach Chris Collins.

On Feb. 16 at a game against Purdue, so many students wanted to attend the game that some were turned away at the door. According to Paul Kennedy, associate athletic director for strategic initiatives and communications, that was the first time NU ever turned students away from a basketball game in the new Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“This year is interesting, because people just want to do stuff. You’ve been cooped up for a whole year and a half,” former Inside NU editor in chief and Medill junior Ben Chasen said. “The opportunity to go out to a sporting event, that was something that we lost for a year and a half.”

NU Wildside, the organization that runs the student section, had new t-shirt, sweatshirt and sweatpants giveaways for every game, and students lined up well before half-time to redeem their vouchers and pick up the newest item.

These giveaways have long been a feature of NU athletic events, but men’s basketball didn’t see similar attendance numbers in the last pre-pandemic season.

The NU student section formerly took up the end zones, but now only includes the center sections, to centralize the crowd on television and increase ticket revenue, according to Kennedy. The increased student turnout for games against big name opponents this year has the athletic department considering adding those sections back to the student section for certain games.

“The turnout, especially given the record of the team, that gives us the ammunition on the day to decide, ‘Okay, let’s plan for these four games to be sold out, and we’re going to have students and we’re going to reserve a lot,’” Kennedy said. “But it’s costly, because it is a huge loss for us.”

Masks were required for fans at NU athletic events until March 1, when NU lifted the mask mandate. However, the policy was loosely enforced, if at all, and photos of the crowd at Welsh-Ryan Arena show that a substantial percentage of fans did not follow the policy.

Some students on campus expressed discomfort on social media platforms like Twitter and YikYak with the lack of mask-wearing at games, specifically after the Jan. 18 matchup against Wisconsin. That game came just after the end of the mandatory two-week Wildcat Wellness period, during which students were not allowed to attend classes in person or go to sporting events.

“Just to be able to put on these sporting events is something that’s just tremendous, and to see the students respond to it positively like they have… we really appreciate the student support, and I know that the student athletes do.” Vice President for Athletics and Recreation Derrick Gragg told The Daily in March.

However, the lack of masking didn’t deter many students from coming to games. With the exception of sparsely attended contests against Nebraska and Rutgers, students filled the student section even for midweek conference games.

NU’s sports teams have always suffered from low attendance, especially when they perform poorly, which makes this basketball season a significant outlier. The Cats won just seven conference games, with three of those wins coming on the road.

Of the three sold out games, NU won just one, against an Indiana team down five regulars due to internal suspensions. But, students continued to return to games with the regular season finale against Minnesota seeing a full student crowd.

“It’s a smaller group overall, and compared to your average Big Ten school, it’s a smaller percentage who quote unquote care,” said John Lacombe (Medill ’02), co-host of the West Lot Pirates podcast, which focuses on NU sports. “The people who care really care. The people who care about Northwestern sports care at a level that matches the level that you’ll find anywhere.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @gablcarroll

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