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Northwestern football attendance and the effect of Jim Phillips' marketing

There are often empty seats at Ryan Field, but there used to be a lot more.

John Gress/Getty Images

"Nobody comes to games"

Ask many Northwestern students who enjoy and follow sports about the atmospheres at Ryan Field and, to a lesser extent, Welsh-Ryan Arena, and many have that same reaction. They're shocked at the poor turnouts. Especially for those who have come from places around the country where college football is king, and where as many as 100,000 fans packing a stadium every Saturday is a given, empty bleachers can be an odd sight.

In fact, we at Inside NU are often quick to point out those empty patches of bleachers, especially in the student section for football games. It is routinely half-full, and at times, when temperatures fall and games kick off before noon, it can be almost non-existent.

But what a lot of fans fail to realize, and what many more experienced fans do realize, is that it used to be worse. A lot worse. A simple look at average attendance over the years shows that:

(2010 average excludes the game at Wrigley Field. Also, [insert caveat about attendance figures self-reported by the program here].)

Year 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006
Average Attendance 38,613 39,305 35,697 33,442 35,528 24,190 28,590 24,589 27,996

Average attendance

A more detailed look can explain some off the odd fluctuations. One thing to consider is strength of opponent, of course. For example, in 2009, Northwestern's three home non-conference games were against Towson, Eastern Michigan (both before students arrived on campus) and Miami (OH). Additionally, it got Big Ten home games against a bad Minnesota team and Indiana. Both of those games drew less than 25,000 despite being in September and October respectively.

Still though, the final game of the 2009 season, against a ranked Wisconsin team, drew just 32,150. Northwestern was 7-4, was coming off wins at No. 6 Iowa and at Illinois, yet Ryan Field was, more or less, only two-thirds full.

An additional look at average attendance alongside NU's wins in each season shows no real trend. The improvement in 2007 and 2008 likely had something to do with the attendance increase in 2008, and the Gator Bowl season in 2012 probably explains the jump in 2013. The regression in 2010 and 2011 might even explain the drop in 2011. But overall, there is no clear pattern.

Attendance and Wins fixed

And there's certainly nothing on the field to explain the one part of the graphs that stands out. That's the leap of over 10,000 fans per game from 2009 to 2010. And if we include the Wrigley game in 2010, which drew over 41,000, the leap would be even bigger.

That leap — and the clear divide between attendance from 2006-2009 and attendance from 2010-2014 — are Jim Phillips' doing. Between the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Phillips did the following things, all part of the biggest athletics marketing campaign ever at Northwestern:

- Added 10 new athletic department staff members to help jumpstart the campaign
- Bought seven Chicagoland billboards to promote NU sports
- Increased newspaper and radio advertising
- Launched an outbound sales plan that had employees making 75-100 calls to potential ticket buyers each day
- Introduced the "Chicago's Big Ten Team" slogan
- Transformed "Wildside," the student section, into a student-led, student government-recognized organization; held regular meetings with Wildside to help drive student attendance.

(Phillips also tried to *enhance* the gameday experience, but that's another topic for another day)

The magnitude of the increase in 2010 also had to do with the fact that the season ticket package included the Wrigley game. That made season tickets far more enticing to fans who wanted to secure their spot for the matchup with Illinois at the historic home of the Chicago Cubs. The decline in 2011 was only slight though, proving the impact of the campaign.

Since then, Phillips and the athletic department have rode Pat Fitzgerald, a great face of the program, and the excitement generated by the 2012 season to new heights. Despite 2013 and 2014 being tied for the second-worst seasons of the Fitzgerald era, Phillips and Northwestern football are putting butts in seats.

Another slight decline could be expected in 2015. We're another year removed from 2012, which now looks like an outlier, so the enthusiasm it generated is wearing off. But Northwestern seems to have established a floor that, when you look back at the previous decade, is astoundingly high.

Northwestern's average attendance numbers are always going to be towards or at the bottom of the Big Ten. That's the result of, among other things, a small alumni base, a lack of winning tradition, and a small stadium.

But hey, it could be a lot worse. All you have to do is look back six years.