Football: New Ryan Field designs look to reduced capacity, state-of-the-art canopy to enhance gameday atmosphere


Photo courtesy of Northwestern Now

Concept renderings for the new Ryan Field. The stadium has an estimated cost of $800 million and is planned to open in 2026.

John Riker, Gameday Editor

Northwestern athletics has drastically redesigned the campus landscape in the past decade, from the futuristic Ryan Fieldhouse along the shore of Lake Michigan to the multipurpose Welsh-Ryan Arena. The final frontier, however, has been updating the 97-year-old Ryan Field. While the Wildcats announced plans to build a new stadium on the current site last fall, the athletic department has kept specifics under wraps.

That changed on Wednesday, when NU released official renderings of the stadium and announced details about the project in a news release. The new Ryan Field project is scheduled for a 2026 opening and has an estimated cost of $800 million.

What did we learn from the long-awaited Ryan Field reveal? Here are five takeaways from the Wildcats’ exciting news:

1. The new Ryan Field will reduce capacity by 12,000

The most shocking detail was perhaps the projected maximum capacity. The current Ryan Field has a maximum capacity of just more than 47,000, and the Cats drew an average attendance of 43,873 as recently as 2018. Even at its current size, Ryan Field is the only stadium in the Big Ten that holds fewer than 50,000 fans and is dwarfed by coliseums that hold more than 100,000 fans at Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State.

In contrast, the new Ryan Field has a planned maximum capacity of 35,000. The result should be more aesthetically pleasing with fuller stands and a game day experience that brings fans closer to the action, but considering the $800 million price tag, the choice is unconventional. 

2. Cats will move out of the old stadium after 2023 and be back in 2026

According to Danny Ecker of Crain’s Chicago Business, the Cats’ athletic department is planning to stay at Ryan Field until the end of the 2023 football season. With a targeted grand opening in 2026, it’s going to be quite an early commute for NU students trying to make an 11 a.m. kickoff at an off-campus stadium for a couple seasons. 

The department has yet to commit to a location for home games in 2024 and 2025 though the Chicago Bears’ Soldier Field is a possibility. Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs, hosted the Cats for a battle against Purdue in 2021 and offers a professional venue on the North Side. 

3. Design looks to create intimate and accessible gameday experience

One of the flaws of Ryan Field — along with most century-old stadiums, for that matter — is its lack of accessibility and sustainability. NU’s athletic department made clear that both will be priorities in the rebuild. The new stadium will be built to Universal Design standards to ensure all Cats’ fans can navigate and enjoy the venue, while the environmental footprint will be addressed by building to the specifications of the Gold LEED certification.

Building a new stadium certainly doesn’t guarantee NU will defeat opponents like Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio), but spectators should have a more immersive experience in general. One benefit of the new stadium’s 35,000-seat capacity will be the quality of seats, which will each have backs and will give fans “the best sight lines in college football,” according to the news release.

4. Its use will extend beyond football

The new Ryan Field will be football’s home base, but NU is planning to use the stadium for additional sports and events as well. While the Cats’ powerhouse lacrosse program will continue to play most of its home games in Ryan Fieldhouse and Martin Stadium, the field dimensions for the new stadium will ensure the venue can host important matchups and be an enticing option for the NCAA Lacrosse Championships.

Aside from sports, the stadium plans to host community programming and concerts. The concerts will help offset the costs that come with maintaining an $800 million stadium, though NU has not committed to a specific number of concerts per year.

5. The price tag is steep, but will be all privately funded

The $480 million donation from the Ryan family started momentum for a new field, and all of the $800 million cost for the new stadium will come from private donors rather than funding from the city. 

NU’s relationship with Evanston is a crucial element to this project, and the Cats are pitching the development as a way to improve life for residents. The NU athletic department projects the new Ryan Field to be a financial boon for the area, from revenue from offseason concerts to contracts with local businesses. For neighbors frustrated with their houses being flooded by the stadium lights during night games, the stadium’s canopy aims to cut down on light and noise disturbance.

Even with the release of designs, the details of Ryan Field are far from finalized, and community input figures to be a major part of the stadium process in the next couple of years. Still, NU fans in the middle of a three-game losing skid found at least some glimmer of hope for the future of Cats football. 

This article has been updated to reflect the potential use of the new Ryan Field for future lacrosse games and championships.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jhnriker

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