Chris Johnson
By (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Dec 18, 2013

A fact about Northwestern’s 2013 football season that won’t surprise you: The Wildcats had the lowest average attendance in the Big Ten. Northwestern’s claim to the bottom spot was predictable, as the margin between its average attendance (39, 307) and that of the school ranked one spot above it, Illinois (43, 787), is substantial (4,480).

But Northwestern’s place in the Big Ten attendance hierarchy should not be summarily interpreted as a negative development for fan interest — nor is it an indication that Northwestern will forever look up longingly at 11 better-attended, fellow conference members. The Wildcats’ average attendance actually increased 10 percent from last season, the second-highest bump in the Big Ten – behind only Purdue (+ 12 percent). The Wildcats also had more home sellouts in ‘13 (2) than any season since ’98, when they drew an average of 40,097 fans.

The hottest tickets on Northwestern’s ‘13 schedule were the Ohio State and Michigan games, which officially “sold out” Ryan Field, posting identical attendance figures of 47,330. The second-highest attendance figure was registered at the Michigan State game (40, 013), followed by the Wildcats’ games against Syracuse (38,033), Minnesota (36,587), Western Michigan (33,128) and Maine (32, 726)

And while the Wildcats still lag behind their Land of Lincoln rivals in average attendance, the gap is closing quickly. Illinois’ ‘13 attendance dropped 4 percent from ’12, while Northwestern’s – as noted above – increased 10 percent. In ‘12, the gap between the Illini’s average attendance and Northwestern’s (9,867) was more than twice as big as it was in ‘13 (4,480) — a – 55 percentage change.

If Northwestern witnesses a positive percentage change in attendance between the ‘13 and ‘14 seasons that approaches or matches the one that occurred between the ‘12 and ‘13 seasons, and Illinois’ attendance continues to plummet at a similar rate, there’s a chance the Wildcats’ could overtake their in-state rivals as early as next season. Northwestern also has a good chance of passing in ‘14 the attendance figure it set in ‘98 (40,097).

Below is a chart screen-shotted from an Al.com study breaking down attendance at FBS programs between ’09 and ’13. (Note: listed attendance figures don’t necessarily represent actual attendance).

Statistical support for this post provided by Al.com and HailToPurple.

  • Mike Deneen

    Northwestern ALWAYS has and ALWAYS WILL have the smallest fan base in the league.

    It’ simple math….fewer students, fewer alums….not to mention the competition from the pro teams.
    It’s theoretically possible that NU could outdraw Illinois next year, but that would only be because of visiting fans.
    It would not reflect a change in the popularity of the program.

    Illinois has a nightmare home schedule next year…..Iowa is the only team that travels. They also have PSU, Purdue, Minny and three very weak, out of state noncons.

    NU will have Northern Illinois (a game that was scheduled purely to boost attendance, even at the cost of a win) and Nebraska. Michigan will bring folks, and Western Illinois will have more fans than typical out-of-state FCS teams.
    We also host Illinois in the final game, and Illini fans will be a significant percentage of our crowd.

    I’ve been watching our attendance trends for years. Year-to-year fluctuations reflect variations in the home schedule, not changes in interest in the home team.

    • Peter Skills

      You make some valid points, but I don’t completely agree with your conclusion there hasn’t been any increased interest in the home team. I gauge that by looking at attendance for our FCS game. Six or seven years ago we were drawing less than 20k for those games. Now we’re drawing over 30k. The primary differences are more season-tickets (yes, some are bought by scalpers/opposing fans, but not all) and more groups (who should be at least mildly interested in NU). So I think interest has increased. It’s going to take time- many years- to build up the NU fanbase though.

  • Henry in Rose Bowl Country

    Attendance depends on performance and the public perception of NU’s football program and I believe that hasn’t really changed much if at all. That’s the bottom line regardless of what all the NU propaganda would like us to think. Except for the brief breakout under Barnett, which did not include a bowl win or a win over Ohio St, what success that has happened since has been mostly smoke and mirrors. And what about Fitzgerald? Is he the savior that is going to lead NU out of the wilderness? That’s the biggest misconception of all.

    • Mike Deneen

      NU’s cultural disconnect from the average Chicagoan is the problem, not performance.
      The average Chicagoan views NU as a too rich, too elitist, too snobby, and just plain out of touch with average people.
      Even in the mid 1990s, there was only one “purple” sellout — the Penn State game in 1995.
      That was our proverbial “15 minutes of fame”, which will never be replicated.

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