"Nobody comes to games."
Those words don't just come out of the mouths of Northwestern students in reference to football. The criticism also pertains to basketball. But just as with football, the students who utter those words might not realize that it used to be much, much worse.
Last week, we took a look at Northwestern football attendance over the past nine years, and there was one obvious conclusion: Jim Phillips' marketing campaign has had a significant effect. Prior to 2010, NU's average Ryan Field attendance languished below 30,000 per game, and in 2007 and 2009, dipped below 25,000 per game. But in 2010, after the initiation of the multi-faceted campaign, attendance shot up by more than 10,000 per game. It has remained high since.
So has basketball followed a similar trend? Has the marketing had a similar effect on Northwestern men's hoops?
In a way, yes. But the nature of the upward trend has been different.
Northwestern basketball average attendance has actually increased every single year since the 2006-07 season. And while there hasn't been one big leap like we saw with football attendance, the progress has been remarkably steady.
Here are the numbers:
(Season averages include all regular season games held at Welsh-Ryan Arena, but exclude any postseason games)
A couple notes to add to the numbers:
- Some of the individual game numbers from the previous decade are shocking. Northwestern drew 2,872 fans for a February conference matchup with Minnesota in 2007-08, and 3,537 for an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game against Florida State in 2008-09.
- In 2009-10, Northwestern vs. North Florida drew 2,835 fans to Welsh-Ryan. In 2014-15, the same matchup drew 5,783.
- The big games have always been big attractions. Even in the down years, games against Michigan State and other top teams regularly sold out. In fact, there were more sellouts in 2007-08 (3) than there were this past season (2).
- The big difference has been the baseline though, especially in non-conference play. The non-conference scheduling philosophy hasn't been too different under Chris Collins, but the Wildcats' lowest single-game attendance in 2014-15 was 5,783 (for that North Florida game). On the other hand, in the previous decade, very few non-conference games drew more than 4,000 fans, and some didn't even eclipse 3,000.
Within the overall improvement though, there are a number of underlying factors that explain the steady rise. Because while that rise in attendance has been somewhat linear, the program's path has been anything but over the same time period. In a way, you can sort of divide the last nine years into three mini-eras.
Let's first add winning percentage to the above table and graph:
The first mini-era can be summed up pretty bluntly: The team was awful, and nobody really cared. Bill Carmody's reign at NU hit rock bottom in 2007-2008, when the team went 8-22 and a putrid 1-17 in Big Ten play. Up through that 07-08 season, attendance was pretty poor.
The second mini-era was defined by the team's improvement, and it starts to explain the trend. From 2008-09 to 2011-12, there was winning basketball in Evanston. And each winning season further legitimized the on-court improvement, causing attendance to slowly climb.
The 2010-11 team was Carmody's best at Northwestern, and is arguably the closest the Wildcats have ever come to making the Tournament. That brought high hopes for 2011-12, which, along with the marketing, likely explains the increase of nearly 700 fans per game. And while the 2011-12 season didn't bring the Tournament berth, it brought enough wins to retain fan interest despite the disappointment of the 2012-13 season.
The third mini-era is the two years with Chris Collins at the helm, and this is where we see the effect of marketing. Whereas on the football side, Phillips and the athletic department had to generate much of the material for the marketing on their own (NU football went from 9 wins in 2008 to 8 in 2009 to 7 in 2010), on the basketball side, all they had to do was promote Collins.
Collins came to Northwestern as the perfect marketing tool. He has the Chicago roots. He has the Duke pedigree. He has a legendary coach as a father. And he has the ambition. Phillips and his team sold fans on the promise that Collins brought. They sold the #NUEra. And despite two losing seasons, the excitement for the future still remains. Fans responded initially to the Collins hire, and bought in even more last year. And if the team is, as expected, better in 2015-16, there's no reason to anticipate attendance going anywhere but up once again.