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Northwestern on track to pass Illinois in football attendance

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).

[iframe src="http://cdn2.vox-cdn.com/imported_assets/2288330/Screen-Shot-2013-12-17-at-8.37.58-PM.png" height="400"]

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