Despite their surprising success on the field, the 3-3 Northwestern Wildcats are on pace to draw close to record-low attendance unless things pick up for the remaining home games.
Through the first four home contest, the ‘Cats are averaging only 20,556 fans. That’s not much more than the 19,755 per game average in 1960, which the sports site HailToPurple.com describes as “the worst in modern history.”
While crowds should increase for the remaining three home games, all of which are against BigTen opponents (including one at Wrigley Field), the big draws such as Michigan and Ohio State are not coming to 47,130-seat Ryan Field this season. Even Illinois is a road game.
Fewer fans means fewer dollars for City Hall.
An economic impact study said Evanston received a total of $2.3 million in taxes related to Northwestern football in 2018, sales taxes, hotel occupancy taxes, athletic ticket taxes and the liquor consumption tax.
2018 was chosen because it had the highest attendance in the five years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But in 2018, the average crowd was 43, 873 fans … more than double the average so far this year.
If that pace continues, the city’s tax revenue from 2023 football will be more than cut in half versus 2018. The direct and indirect economic impact on restaurants, hotels and stores ($47.2 million in 2018) would also take a dive.
Clearly, with the hazing scandal, the dismissal of coaching legend Pat Fitzgerald, controversy over a new stadium, and coming off a 1-11 season last year, NU football has a marketing challenge to bring in more athletic-tax-paying and T-shirt-buying fans.
Evanston Now went to an expert who is not connected to NU.
Keith Lambrecht is the director of the sport management program at Loyola University’s Quinlan School of Business.
Lambrecht said that with all of the controversies swirling around NU, the athletics program is “in a crisis mode.”
While it’s hard to say how much each negative issue feeds into the low football attendance, he thinks that “one of the biggest factors was Fitzgerald’s dismissal, or maybe how it was handled.”
Fitz supporters, at least those showing up, have displayed their displeasure on their backs.
Without commenting on specifics of the hazing allegations, Lambrecht said Northwestern “now lacks the celebrity for football that Fitzgerald was,” a head coach at his alma mater who competed successfully in a tough conference, and graduated his players.
Trying to bring back the fans, Lambrecht said, is “basic marketing. What are the needs and wants of the consumer?”
Certainly, a winning team is one, and the ‘Cats are doing better than anyone expected, except perhaps the team and Interim Head Coach David Braun.
Braun, who just arrived in January and was promoted when Fitzgerald was let go, is almost in a no-lose position.
If the ‘Cats were terrible, no one would blame him. But if they keep doing reasonably well, he might be in line for the head coaching position permanently.
“It’s tough to follow someone who had great success [Fitzgerald],” Lambrecht said.
“Maybe the university needs to make a splash” with a big-name hire.
Or, maybe they just stick with Braun, if he can be turned into the “face of the NU football program” (assuming, of course, he would want the job).
If NU does win another game or two (not easy, but not impossible based on the schedule), it might bring back some fans this season, or at least see them buy tickets for next year.
Of course, the next two years offer a whole different set of challenges. If City Council approves the new Ryan Field, the ‘Cats would have to find a new place for home games until the new Ryan Field is finished.
And a sparkling new stadium would be a draw by itself, at least at the beginning.
Northwestern, Lambrecht said, “will just have to weather this out. It will go away at some point.”
And nothing does succeed like success.
When the men’s basketball program made its run to March Madness, there were several sellouts.
It is easier to sell out a basketball arena than it is a football stadium, even one that will shrink from 47,000 seats to 35,000 if the new one is built.
But as Lambrecht noted, “one of the old adages is if you win, they will come.”
And they will spend money.