Northwestern can travel. You may have heard that before, but if you had never seen proof, you did Saturday night. While the broadcasters downplayed the purple turnout as a “smattering,” the cameras fell in love. Estimates put the NU crowd in excess of 7,000 out of the roughly 58,000 in attendance. That would be on par with the turnout at West Point and more than Boston College, which was also quite strong.
While many people did fly out to Berkeley for the game, the success really came from the Northwestern Alumni Association chapter in the Bay Area. I saw reference to it being the third largest chapter behind New York and Los Angeles, though I don’t know if that’s actually the case. I do know, however, that a lot of Northwestern graduates end up in San Francisco. The NAA pregame tailgate drew a sold out crowd of 1,500, which, according to Pat Fitzgerald, was the largest NAA tailgate since the 1996 Rose Bowl. Not bad.
There has been a concerted effort to reach out to alumni on both coasts recently. Fitzgerald has traveled to meet with a handful of NAA chapters. The athletic department has realized the importance of engaging with alumni and making them feel connected to the team. It helps with donations and getting alumni to come back to campus for games in Evanston. Scheduling has been a part of that effort. Recent games against Syracuse, Army, and Boston College, as well as bowl games in Florida, have drawn east coast alumni. That will hopefully continue with future games against Rutgers (TBD), Maryland (TBD), and, to a lesser extent, Duke (2015 and 2017). But the West Coast is also getting its chance now. The Wildcats will play at Stanford in 2016, 2020, and 2022 and have a higher likelihood of playing a bowl game in California with the Holiday Bowl in San Diego and Kraft Bowl in San Francisco signed up for the Big Ten’s bowl rotation.
The amount of purple away from Evanston has a few less tangible but very real benefits. For one, it attacks the notion that Northwestern doesn’t have any fans. Attendance at home is improving, but when people tune in to a Northwestern road game and see those in purple making that kind of presence, they take notice.
Apparently the Bay Area is Northwestern west. Purple people everywhere. Or maybe NW fans are equally excited for the Sonny Sykes era at Cal.
— John Breech (@johnbreech) September 1, 2013
It also helps Dr. Phillips sell Northwestern to bowl committees, though that may become less important in the upcoming bowl rotation given the new selection rules that give the Big Ten greater power to focus on matchups and prevent return trips. And at least one recruit still considering Northwestern was at the game checking out Cal.
Road game turnout in conference play is not nearly as successful. It relies on traveling fans rather than those who live near those towns. But Northwestern has seen an increase in that, as well. Traveling parties that used to consist primarily of families of the players are growing to the point where NU’s visitor allotments sell out. I would encourage everyone, especially current students, to make at least one road trip and experience what it’s like to be in enemy territory. The “us against the world” mentality can heighten fandom and create more vivid memories than a home game can. There are many easy drives that take less than two and a half hours, including Wisconsin and Illinois. Purdue and Notre Dame are on tap for next year and Iowa is doable in a day. The drives themselves may be boring, but you should see the sun rise from NW Indiana at least once.
I’ll close by turning attention briefly to the home opener. Syracuse likely won’t draw a significant number of its own fans. It didn’t in 2008. But given the increase in season ticket sales and expectations, the top 25 ranking, and fact the game will be played under the lights, it should be strong. Last year’s home opener against Vanderbilt, a rainy night game that probably saw good advanced sales but poor day-of sales, drew 31,664. The Boston College game a week later hosted 32,597. I’ll be surprised if the crowd does not exceed 35,000. It may push 37,000 with the help of HS Band Day. While that does not seem like a lot, when you factor in the tarped off sections in the NE corner and the upper deck that is almost forgettable from the lower level on the west side, Ryan Field should seem rather full. And although students are not yet on campus, there should be an even stronger turnout than last year’s given the expectations and new student tailgate, Fitzerland.