Men’s Basketball: Northwestern expands student section at Welsh-Ryan Arena


Daily file photo by Gabe Bider

Student fans cheer on men’s basketball last season. With a successful start to the 2023 campaign, students are expected to return to Welsh-Ryan Arena in large numbers.

Gabriela Carroll, Senior Staffer

After hundreds of students were turned away at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Jan. 4 for Northwestern’s big win over rival Illinois, the Wildcats are making changes in an effort to let in more students for Wednesday’s game against Rutgers.

Wildside, the NU student section, sent a message Monday night announcing the student section will expand to include section 105, adding 200 seats for students. The athletic department will also run two additional game day shuttles, increasing the total to six. The first shuttles will begin running 30 minutes earlier.

Many students had difficulties using the shuttles Jan. 4. According to passengers, the four buses were extremely crowded and unable to pick up students after the first stops.

Wildside has long offered incentives to students who arrive early and come to games, distributing free food like Raising Cane’s and exclusive NU merchandise to early arrivers. Jones said these incentives are available to students as soon as the doors open for gametime.

“If they want (Raising) Cane’s, they want to be the first to get there, they can do that,” said Tyler Jones, the executive senior associate athletic director for revenue generation and strategic initiatives.

Bringing more students into the arena early lessens the crowds on the shuttles later in games and allows all students to enter and find their seats safely, without a long wait outside, according to Jones.

Against Rutgers on Wednesday, t-shirts will be offered to the first 400 students and Raising Cane’s to the first 200.

At Welsh-Ryan’s original opening in 1952, section 105 was considered part of the student section and not sold to the general public. But over time, as student attendance waned, the section became available to the public.

In an interview with The Daily last spring, Associate Athletic Director for Strategic Initiatives and Communications Paul Kennedy said that with the sections behind the basket being so visible on television, the department decided to sell tickets in those sections, rather than let them sit empty.

“But the turnout, especially given the record in the team with Illinois, Indiana and Purdue, that gives us the ammunition to decide, we need to plan for (those) games to be sold out,” Kennedy said.

Last season saw multiple games with notably large student crowds — against Wisconsin, Purdue, Illinois and Indiana. Jones said the department’s internal data saw a high watermark of about 700 students, close to the capacity of the student section before the additional seats.

In response to massive demand for the Jan. 4 game against Illinois, the athletic department worked to relocate those who had bought seats in section 105 to other regions of the arena for the game on Wednesday against Rutgers. There will also be overflow seating in the upper level if student demand surpasses the approximately 950-person capacity.

“If this is consistent, and we’re getting eight to nine hundred students per game, that helps us operationalize additional pivots,” Jones said. “That’s one pivot we want to commit to for Wednesday, and I’m hopeful that our students appreciate it.”

With the men’s basketball team off to a 12-3 (3-1 Big Ten) start and playing like a potential postseason contender, student interest may be higher than it’s been in years. But the Feb. 12 contest against No. 3 Purdue is already sold out, and games against Indiana and Wisconsin in coming weeks have limited seating available, leaving few opportunities to move fans into other sections of the arena.

As of now, the expanded student section and increased shuttle service will only be available Wednesday against Rutgers. Jones said if students continue to turn out in high numbers, they will look toward other systems to make sure as many students as possible can attend games.

For years, opposing fan bases like Illinois and Indiana have taken over Welsh-Ryan and made road games look like home games. But because of the arena’s small size, the presence of a full and loud student section can level the playing field and create a true home-court advantage.

“When our students show up and get into the game the way they are, this is as good of an atmosphere as there is,” coach Chris Collins said postgame Jan. 4. “It’s a tough place to play.”

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