Attendance: Becoming Not The Worst in the Near Future?

Jonathan Daniel

Northwestern has done a great job of shedding some of the worst labels associated with its program. We are most definitely not the worst team in college football anymore. We no longer have an active losing streak, an active bowl losing streak, or any sort of bowl monkey metaphors. Other teams and coaches seem to, in general, respect our team and our coach.

Even so, there are still some negatives that we need to outgrow. Foremost among them-- attendance and the home field advantage. Despite a dramatic increase since the "Chicago's Big Ten Team" marketing campaign began, Northwestern still finished 2012 at the bottom of the Big Ten, trailing Purdue by 7,891 fans. And, of course, there was the Nebraska silent count fiasco, which is a reminder that raw numbers of fans don't mean much if they're not also wearing purple.

There are undoubtedly structural reasons for why Northwestern's attendance falls short of its conference rivals. We have the smallest student body (the next smallest undergraduate student body, Iowa, is still about 2.4 Northwesterns). Our alumni tend to move across the country and, speaking from experience, it's tough to get back for games when you live in North Carolina. The prime football ticket buying demographic-- middle aged men-- is still dominated by people who grew up thinking of Northwestern as the lovable losers by the lake.

But all of those reasons aside, wouldn't it feel good if, in spite of everything counting against us, we could just not be last in Big Ten attendance?

Believe it or not, it's possible-- by no means guaranteed, but possible-- that we could see Northwestern be not the worst in the conference in average game attendance. And it could happen soon.

Naturally, we have Illinois and Tim Beckman's commitment to doing Whatever Is Necessary Today to thank.

All numbers are courtesy of the NCAA.

(Note that Maryland's less-than-stunning 2012 attendance-- 36,023-- would suggests that they'll potentially join the conference at #14 in attendance, behind Northwestern. But that feels like cheating. Let's actually beat someone.)

Joining Northwestern at the bottom of the attendance race are a few familiar names. In 2012, we had:

Illinois 45,564
Indiana 44,802
Purdue 43,588
Northwestern 35,697

But one year's number doesn't tell us much. Indiana has been increasing its attendance at a pretty good rate (up from 31,782 in 2008). With an ever-elusive bowl bid potentially in reach, it's reasonable to assume they'll stay on their upward trajectory for a few more years. Purdue, on the other hand, has been bleeding fans at a rate of 2,290 fans/game/year during Danny Hope's tenure as coach.

That's a bad trend for Purdue (in fact, Hope blames this trend for his firing), and it's entirely possible that we'll overtake them soon, depending on the new coach's performance. But it's not quite Zook-Beckman bad, which is why I'm betting that Illinois is our prime candidate to overtake.

Let me preface: I don't have strong feelings about this rivalry thing with Illinois. My brother has a masters from the school and everyone I've ever met that's associated with the university has been friendly. But for the sake of my alma mater, I'm willing to set aside my indifference and hate them. And with that in mind, relegating Illinois to "worst attendance in the Big Ten" status would feel pretty good.

The NCAA website lists attendance per school since 1998:

Average Attendance Per Game 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Illinois 39,590 45,291 55,978 53,196 55,199 48,097 48,626 47,852 43,445 54,872 61,707 59,545 54,188 49,548 45,564
Northwestern 40,907 30,845 33,498 33,763 28,032 28,763 28,408 32,527 27,996 24,589 28,590 24,190 36,449 33,442 35,697

The complete picture looks pretty rough for Northwestern-- the graph begins with Gary Barnett's exit as the post-Rose Bowl Era of Good Feelings faded, and it's been choppy ever since. There's absolutely no reason for the 2009 team to have had such little fan support, given the talent they had. But the recent trend, thanks in part to the marketing efforts of the athletic department, gives a lot of reason to be optimistic.

And then there's Illinois, a team facing a troubling recent trend. For much of the 2000s, they were tracking roughly a parallel path to Northwestern, declining from the mid 50s to the high 40s. Ron Zook managed to breathe new life into the fan base... only to let it fizzle away into the Beckman regime. They've seen an average loss of 4,036 fans/game/year since the 2008 post-Rose Bowl euphoria.

One more season with those trends, and Illinois will drop to a dead heat with Purdue for the 10/11 spots next season. Even if Northwestern holds steady at about 35,000 and Illinois manages to slow the rate at which their fan base is abandoning them to Purdue levels, they're on track to fall below us in four or five seasons.

It's not that simple, of course. Illinois may have a floor of fan support in the low 40s that will always attend games, no matter what. Or maybe Tim Beckman will shock the world go to the Rose Bowl next year-- that would be a very Zook thing to do.

But that's all the more reason to hope for a big season for Northwestern this year (and a bad one for Illinois, naturally). A legitimate run at the Big Ten title might be just the boost we need to shed the "worst attendance in the Big Ten" label and hand it to a much more deserving team-- maybe as soon as next year.

So go buy tickets, and get your friends to go to games. It's not just for you, and it's not even just for Northwestern. It's also for added benefit of embarrassing Tim Beckman even more than he already does himself.

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