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Davis: Can NU Average 40,000 Fans Per Game This Year?

Jon Davis writes a weekly column that brings a fan perspective to InsideNU. Follow him on Twitter at @NUHighlights and make sure to check out his highlights for each game at

Northwestern hasn’t won the Big Ten title outright since 1995. They haven’t averaged 40,000 in attendance since 1998. What say we end both streaks this year?

The 1995 season saw a homecoming crowd of mostly fans in red come and watch the 35-0 blowout of Wisconsin before becoming nearly all purple for the famous showdown against Penn State under the lights. That year, according to, the average attendance was 38,230, up from 34,382 in 1994 (I believe this includes the Notre Dame game at Soldier Field, which drew 66,946) and 30,965 in 1993. In 1996, NU began a stretch of three consecutive seasons of averaging over 40,000 fans (42,310, 41,868, and 40,907).

When Barnett left, so did the crowd, with the average attendance falling by 10,000 down to 30,890. It dropped as low as 24,190 in 2009, the lowest since 1980. New to Northwestern football? Well, the 2009 opener under sunny skies against Towson drew 17,857, a mere 47% of this year’s opener against Syracuse and 54% of last Saturday’s turnout. The next game against Eastern Michigan, in which the Wildcats needed a late game-winning FG from Demos to avoid overtime, had 19,239 in the stands.

So what does NU have to draw the rest of the way to average 40,000? Let’s take a look at 2012 for context and the 2013 numbers so far:

2012: Vanderbilt (31,664), Boston College (32,597), South Dakota (28,641), Indiana (33,129), Nebraska (sellout of 47,330), Iowa (44,121), Illinois (32,415)

2013: Syracuse (38,033), Western Michigan (33,128), Maine (???), Ohio State (sellout of 47,330), Minnesota (???), Michigan (sellout of 47,330), Michigan State (???)

I’m going to pencil in 31,000 for the Maine game on Saturday. Given that it’s a 2:30 kickoff with what should be a pretty full student section and hopefully great weather, I think that’s a fair estimate. It could actually get close to the 33k that came last weekend. An attendance of 31,000 for Maine would mean that NU will have to average 41,600 between the Minnesota and Michigan State games to average 40,000 on the season.

It’s too soon to tell if 41,600 is doable for both games. It will depend on how well both Northwestern and Michigan State are doing. In 2010, a 5-1 Wildcats team hosted the 7-0 Spartans, ranked 8th in the country. 41,115 came to Evanston that day. But the following year, when 6-5 Northwestern hosted 9-2, 11th ranked Michigan State on a rainy Senior Day in November, only 32,172 showed up. Michigan State does not travel as well as Ohio State, Nebraska, Michigan, or even Iowa, but when things are going really well, they will come to Evanston. Don’t count on that this November, though the number of fans wearing purple should be much stronger this year than in either of the last home games between the two. That would make 41,600 within reach.

Minnesota is a different case. When they last came to Evanston in 2011 with a 2-8 record to face the 5-5 Wildcats, only 26,215 were in attendance. Not many Gopher fans make it to Evanston and that won’t be different this year. That makes 41,600 unlikely, but there is still one big reason why it could still happen. If Northwestern at least splits the two games against Ohio State and Wisconsin, the Wildcats will have all of their goals ahead of them, as Fitzgerald likes to say. Given that Ohio State and Michigan are virtually sold out, Minnesota is the lone home contest between Saturday’s game against Maine and the November 11 Senior Day matchup with the Spartans.

Even though the game has a high likelihood of being at 11 AM since Northwestern will not have played a single morning start up to that point, it may still be an attractive option for a lot of fans. Anyone who didn’t get tickets to the two sold out games against Ohio State and Michigan will have to settle on Minnesota. The mid-October matchup may offer optimal fall football weather and allow parents to bring their children to a conference game, something that will be out of their price range on the secondary market until the home finale. And the Saturday before Thanksgiving is often too cold to bring the family out to Ryan Field.

At this point, I don’t think Northwestern will get above 40,000, though it’s certainly possible. I think 39,000+ is more realistic, which would still be a big accomplishment.

Next year? Well, a lot is still to be determined. Will Northwestern travel to South Bend, exclusive away game ticket access to which will be used to drive season ticket sales? Which school will fill a September open slot? Will they keep FCS Western Illinois? And, perhaps biggest of all, will Northwestern play a game at Wrigley or will that not start until 2015?

NU’s non-conference schedule currently consists of Cal, Western Illinois, and at Notre Dame in November. They currently have three open weeks (9/6, 9/13, and 10/25), one of which needs to be filled with a non-conference opponent after Vanderbilt backed out of the 2013 (Nashville) and 2014 (Evanston) dates from the original four game deal.

Only the opener against Cal is a sure thing. Notre Dame has been trying hard to cancel or move games from the 2014 schedule after they signed a five game per year agreement with the ACC. They’re down to 13 games right now with three legitimate options remaining for a game to drop. One of those is a home game against Rice on 8/30, the sole matchup of a one-off deal between the two schools. Notre Dame would rather not open up the season with an off week, though the 2014 calendar offers two bye weeks during the season. However, given that there’s no return trip, there is probably less legal pressure on Notre Dame to keep this game.

The second option is Purdue, scheduled for 9/13. Purdue and Notre Dame are set to play annually through the 2021 season. Notre Dame may be willing to sacrifice a home game with Purdue that would not be made up in order to accommodate the rest of their 2014 schedule, but Purdue may feel differently. This also wouldn’t look great after they narrowly escaped Purdue with a win.

It’s also worth noting that 9/13 is currently open for Northwestern, so if this game is dropped, it’s conceivable that Dr. Phillips may push Notre Dame to move their game from 11/15 up to the third week in September, giving the Wildcats a week off before their final two games in November and perhaps cupcake opponents before and after they face the Irish. That would be tough given that they’ll have to work around ACC scheduling, which is also in the works.

Of course, Northwestern may end up being the team that’s dropped. We know from reports that NU is pushing back hard. If it does happen, we may end up with a very weak non-conference schedule next season. I would imagine that they’ll keep Western Illinois or another FCS team, try to bring in a bad MAC team if there’s still one available, and perhaps explore a home-and-home with a BCS opponent with a return trip to Evanston delayed until 2017 or 2019. This could actually happen regardless of the Notre Dame game with the home-and-home taking place in Evanston in 2014, but I would much rather the Wildcats go with two BCS foes next year instead of three.

Whatever happens, you can bet that there is urgency to get the 2014 schedule completed. We’re already three weeks into the season and this should be nailed down by now. The administration is waiting on Notre Dame before finalizing everything and hopefully we’ll get news of that soon.

Still reading? Congratulations! You get to read my thoughts on the potential 2014 game at Wrigley. Right now, it’s unclear if Northwestern has gotten any word from the Cubs as to whether they’ll be able to host a game next November. Full renovations do not need to be completed for that to happen, but the Cubs will be on a tight construction schedule and having things ready for an event will be tough. They can’t have partially constructed walls or torn up sidewalks, so it’s not as simple as halting work for a week. Given the lack of news, my gut says there is less than a 50/50 shot of the game happening.

If it does go on, Northwestern will have to decide whether to move the Michigan game or the Illinois game, the only two that are scheduled for November, out of Ryan Field. I’d favor the Michigan game, though everyone is going to have their own opinion. Here’s what has to be taken into account:

-The Michigan game is a likely sellout in Evanston while Illinois on Thanksgiving weekend will draw significantly less, so moving Michigan to Wrigley would sacrifice potentially over 10,000 tickets sold

-Few students will be around on Thanksgiving weekend for a game against Illinois in either Evanston or Wrigley Field

-Even though students will likely be charged for tickets again (I’m assuming), the administration will not want students to miss out on the opportunity and hurt both the atmosphere and percentage of fans in purple

-Michigan fans will be more active on the secondary market to get tickets to a game at Wrigley, but given the trend in season ticket sales, there will be far fewer available than in 2010

-Illinois fans will also be active on the secondary market, but probably not to the extent that they were in 2010 unless they have a good season this year and next

-Northwestern will not want to give Illinois the media exposure of playing in Chicago, especially after their recent marketing push

-The big atmosphere of hosting Michigan at Wrigley would be a good warmup for their (currently scheduled) trip to South Bend the following week

Ultimately, I think it’s better to sacrifice the money that Michigan in Evanston would bring in order to have students attend the game, likely fill the stands with more (not less) purple, and keep Illinois out of it.

As I mentioned, there is a lot to be determined for next year’s schedule.