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What moves the needle on attendance? Part 1: kickoff times

Sporting attendance is always a bit of a sore subject around Northwestern-land. With our football team often playing in front of half-empty half-full Ryan Field (capacity 47,130), we’re the butt of a lot of jokes around the conference.

Never mind that our student body is but a mere fraction of our state-school conference brethren, or that NU draws a national student body with alumni scattered all around the country. No doubt you’ve heard that despite being located in Chicago, NU has the 10th smallest alumni base in the city among BigTen teams.

Despite these well-reasoned arguments/excuses, our football attendance remains notoriously poor. It no doubt impacts our recruiting, and it also plays into the perception among fans and casual observers that our football program remains small fry. Thankfully, the current administration appears to be taking a proactive approach by revamping the ticket office operations and launching a major Chicago marketing campaign, highlighted by last year’s game at Wrigley.

Beyond that, though, I thought I’d take a look at our attendance trends over the past few years and see if we might be able to glean any insights on what moves the needle, in terms of putting butts in the seats.

Some fans argue that NU has scheduled unattractive non-conference match-ups, which has held attendance down. Others say 11 a.m. kickoffs kill attendance. And some say that a consistently winning program will eventually draw fans.

I’ve taken attendance data from the last five years, which neatly coincides with Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure as head coach, and I’ve dissected the numbers to take a closer look at what it all might mean. There’s a lot to go through, so I’ve split this up into parts. Today’s Part 1 will focus on kickoff times.

Since I’m already being longwinded, let me first point out the weaknesses of my study.

First, five years of home games = 33 games, which sounds like a decent sample size, but considering that we’ve got sellouts against Ohio State and tiny crowds against Towson, the data is sometimes skewed strongly, especially as you slice and dice up the numbers into smaller data sets. 

Also, it’s hard to quantify exactly how much of the crowd consists of NU fans and not opposing fans. For instance, probably 98% of the Towson crowd was NU fans, but how many of the 47,130 who attended our games against Ohio State were NU fans?

Ok, second pre-analysis point I need to make. I can't figure out for the life of me how to insert a chart into the text, so instead, here's a link to my Google Docs spreadsheet.

Looking at the overall attendance trend, obviously this past season’s attendance up-tick is a good sign, but it remains to be seen how well that will carry over this season without the Wrigley Field game tie-in to season tickets.  The 2009 figure has got to be the most discouraging, coming off 2008’s 9-4 season, the best record NU has had since winning the BigTen championship in 2000. 

Third point: correlation vs. causation. Hard to pinpoint causation. But we'll look at the correlation.


Ok with that out of the way, let’s look at the impact of kickoff times on attendance.  The consensus NU fanbase hypothesis is that later kickoffs, particularly night games, will see big boosts in attendance over those 11 a.m. kickoffs that everybody hates. Is that true?

I’ve separated our attendance figures into BigTen games and non-conference games.  I’ve also further split up the non-conference games into FBS competition and FCS competition. See the spreadsheet for the breakdowns.

For the conference games, clearly the later kick-off games enjoy greater attendance. The six afternoon kickoffs saw on average 7,000 more fans in Ryan Field, and the one night conference game we had also saw a big uptick in attendance over the 11 a.m./12 p.m. kickoffs.

But, is it just the kickoff times?  Or is it the fact that the afternoon and night games tend to be big matchups against marquee ranked opponents, like Penn StateWisconsin and Ohio State?

Well let’s look at our games against Michigan State. In 2006, we had an 11 a.m. kickoff that drew 29,327. This was for homecoming, and we had a rather uninspiring 2-5 record entering the game. In 2008, a 2:30 p.m. kickoff, we drew 32,527; MSU was ranked #19, and we came in with a 5-0 record. Then last year, we were 5-1 and played 8th-ranked MSU at 11 a.m., drawing 41,115.

Based on this data, it appears that at least for our games against Michigan State, kickoff time wasn’t really a big factor. Rather, the records of our teams seem to be bigger factors.

Our Illinois match-ups show both record and kickoff time to be factors, though we’re only looking at really two games here. In 2006, a noon kickoff between two bad teams drew 22,242. In 2008, a 2:30 kickoff between our 8-3 Wildcats and the 5-6 Illini drew 32,166. And then last year, our Wrigley Field matchup drew 41,058, but that’s a statistical anomaly because of the venue.

With Purdue, we had an 11 a.m. kickoff in 2006 that drew 27,171; another 11 a.m. kickoff in 2008 that drew 27,163 for homecoming (we were 5-1 entering the game); and a 6 p.m. night game last year that drew 33,847 (we were 5-0). The evening kickoff appears to have boosted attendance significantly.

Our two Ohio State games — afternoon kickoff in 2006 and 11 a.m. kickoff in 2008 — both sold out.

Our other BigTen opponents, we either played only once at home in this five-year span, so no trends to be spotted there, or we only had 11 a.m. kickoffs against.


That’s for the BigTen conference games. What about the non-conference games?  Among our non-conference FBS match-ups, we had 6 games with 11 a.m. kickoffs, and they actually averaged more fans than our one night game, as well as our one afternoon game. (Yes, son, we used to have 1 p.m. kickoffs, back before the BTN, when we had several games each year go untelevised. Life without TV timeouts was so much simpler back then.)

For our FCS games, the four 11 a.m. kickoffs had virtually the same average attendance as our one 1 p.m. kickoff.

So as far as non-conference games go, it doesn’t really matter when we kick off. I suspect that in general, these match-ups generate a collective "meh" from the NU fanbase, so while an afternoon or night kickoff might be more convenient for those of us who aren’t morning people, nobody’s really basing their ticket-buying decision on whether a game against Eastern Michigan or even Duke kicks off at 11 a.m. or sometime later.


So, what have we learned?  Well, I don’t think the afternoon/night games boost attendance as much as people might suspect.

As I just showed, for the nonconference games we've scheduled, kickoff times don’t matter at all. For conference games, the evidence is more mixed. Our Purdue games showed an apparent correlation with kickoff time, since the attendance didn’t seem to track our records entering those games.

Against Illinois, ignoring the Wrigley sell-out, kickoff time might have been a factor, but it also might have been the competitiveness of the teams.

And then Michigan State is a mixed bag. An attractive and hyped afternoon matchup on homecoming in 2008 didn’t provide too significant of an attendance boost over 2006’s early kickoff, and last year we had our highest non-sellout attendance for an 11 a.m. kickoff.

Anyway, the conclusion I draw from this is that kickoff times don’t really matter a ton. Maybe a little, but not as much as you might suspect. I think fans are drawn to attractive matchups between good teams, preferably ranked.

But then, perhaps opposing fans are, too. Maybe some of the huge crowds we’ve drawn for 11 a.m. kickoffs have been largely driven by opposing fans coming out of the woodwork when their teams are highly ranked.  Hard to say.

But I’m going to stick with my conclusion that kickoff times, as much as I hate 11 a.m. games, aren’t a huge factor in driving attendance.  Your thoughts?

I’ve got a lot more attendance-splicing data analysis to share, and I’ll continue this analysis in a future post or two looking at the impact of the attractiveness of our nonconference scheduling and the competitiveness of our team.