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Should Northwestern Play Basketball at the United Center?

Jon Davis runs northwesternhighlights.com, posting highlights of Northwestern games across all sports. Follow him on Twitter at @NUHighlights.

Northwestern is looking to host a big name program at the United Center for the 2014-2015 season according to a Wednesday morning report from Teddy Greenstein in the Chicago Tribune. Is this a good move for the program or just an inconvenience to fans and students?

The Wildcats have been moving home games to off-campus sites around the city since 1891, when the football team, in just their second year with a head coach, played Lake Forest to a scoreless tie at Cubs Park. One of the low points of the Dark Ages came in the 1991 home game against Ohio State, which was moved to Cleveland Stadium. If this is the first you’ve heard of this, go ahead and reread that sentence. In Francis Peay’s final season before Gary Barnett took over, Northwestern moved a home game five hours east and two states over to the backyard of the visiting team in exchange for a briefcase full of money. Indiana did something similar in 2010 when they sold a home game for $3 million to Penn State at FedEx Field.

Northwestern also sold a home game just six games later, starting Gary Barnett’s tenure at Soldier Field against Notre Dame. They would do this again in 1994. Why? Well, this one wasn’t just a cash grab for an athletic department in need of money. It was actually the only way they could convince Notre Dame to play them in a four game “home” and home series from 1992-1995. Northwestern now refuses to do that, which is why Notre Dame’s agreement to a home and home for 2014 and 2018, with the latter date to be played in Evanston, was so surprising. The football program actually has some leverage now.

They’ve come a long way. But not all the way. From a perception standpoint, many top potential non-conference opponents view playing the Wildcats as a lose/lose proposition. Fitz and Dr. Phillips would absolutely love to schedule a home and home with programs like Alabama and USC and they’d likely gladly move it to Soldier Field if they insisted on a higher seating capacity. But there isn’t anything in it for Alabama and USC.

This takes me back to basketball. Coach Collins is inheriting a program that is in much better shape than the Barnett team of 1992, both in terms of talent and reputation. According to a past report from Greenstein, Carmody was very close to scheduling a home and home with UCLA before the Bruins backed out of it late in the process. It was hard to see a big name program like UCLA agreeing to play Northwestern, but there’s a key difference between basketball reputation and football reputation: RPI. Hosting a team like Northwestern may not do much for ticket sales (if that’s needed) or national spotlight, but you can still benefit in the computers if the Wildcats are good enough. If they’re not, then there’s no reason to play them.

Now Northwestern seems poised to take the next step and actually land a top non-conference opponent. This will help in recruiting, as kids want to know they’ll be playing big games. This will help in local and national exposure.  And this will also help in RPI. The faith that Collins inspires in both fans and the national media is critical in getting this done. A program like Kansas needs some confidence that they’re not scheduling a potential RPI killer. They also need to be getting something else out of it, specifically recruiting exposure in Chicago. This isn’t as important now as it was when fewer games were televised, but since Northwestern is not currently recruiting many of the same guys as a Kansas, there’s little harm in pitching this benefit to Bill Self.

I will argue all day that Northwestern is Chicago’s Big Ten Team, but there is a big difference for a program like Kansas between hosting kids at the United Center in front of many of their home fans versus up in Evanston at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The United Center seats 20,917 with an extra 2,212 standing room spots.  Illinois drew 18,136 this past December when they hosted Auburn. Welsh-Ryan seats 8,117.

In an ideal world, there would be no reason to host a game at the United Center. It’s far from campus and would make it difficult for both students and season ticket holders to get there. They’d also have to pay more to park along with higher ticket prices. The seats aren’t as close and no NBA-style stadium can compete in atmosphere to an on or near campus arena. Northwestern would be able to sell more tickets, but it’s possible they could take home less money than if the game stayed in Evanston. The same is true for football. Hosting a top name program would be the only reason to consider moving a game to Soldier Field (the Illinois game against Washington has been on sale since the spring and is still far from a sellout). Like the United Center, there’s no extra appeal or “cool factor.” People expect football and basketball games to be played at those venues. It won’t attract extra media attention.

But Northwestern basketball, like football, isn’t respected nationally on the same scale as the programs they want to schedule. If moving a game to the United Center is the only way they can play a team like Kansas and gain national spotlight during the non-conference season, then it is a necessary step.

There are plenty of questions that remain unanswered at this point. Would the game be played when students are on campus? How much would tickets cost? Can they pair this game with another to create a double header and sell more tickets (the State Farm Champions Classic at the United Center will feature Michigan State vs. Kentucky and Kansas vs. Duke in a double header this November)? If it takes place in November, can they somehow schedule it the night before or day after a Wrigley game to boost exposure during broadcasts (idea courtesy of @mtxemurph)? Would Dr. Phillips be able to secure an ESPN broadcast?

I really like Welsh-Ryan and would much rather have the game stay in Evanston than drive and pay to park at the United Center. I also hate moving home games, though the benefits of playing at Wrigley make that deal an easy choice. But this is an opportunity that they have to pursue. Even if such a game is an inconvenience to fans, it will be what is best for the program.