Northwestern wants to play a football game at Wrigley Field in 2017. Or at least that's what athletic director Jim Phillips told the Chicago Tribune this week.
Phillips' words were news to most everybody. But for many Northwestern fans, especially those who attended Northwestern's first football game at the Friendly Confines in 2010, they were unwelcome news.
Wrigley Field, for Northwestern fans, is almost assuredly inseparable from the 48-27 beatdown Northwestern suffered at the hands of Illinois and Mikel Leshoure in 2010. The game was one-sided — literally and figuratively — and the weather was inhospitable, much like the stadium itself.
Wrigley is not set up to be a football stadium, and that was apparent in 2010. Views were obstructed by poles, as well as by other fans due to the seating structure. Ticket prices were unreasonably high, many in triple digits. There was also the problem of Wrigleyville, not exactly a tailgate-friendly area. Bars became overcrowded, and traditional tailgating was borderline impossible.
But it's important to identify which of these factors were general Wrigley problems, and which were one-time problems specific to that 2010 game. The tailgating and seating structure are Wrigley problems, and there might not be feasible fixes.
But many of the issues aren't inevitable in 2017. First of all, no matter how much you try to distinguish between the Wrigley experience and the actual game, a 21-point Illinois win, the latter likely played a major role in your enjoyment (or lack thereof) of the former. Leshoure (330 yards rushing and two touchdowns) soured the day for you. The game itself accentuated the negatives and obscured the positives.
In addition, Northwestern will have learned from the 2010 game. NU charged the high ticket prices because it could. It was selling them to two sizable college team fan bases — plus a third, the Chicago sports fan who simply wanted to see football at Wrigley — and there was a novelty to the game that likely made fans willing to pay the extra money. None of this would be the case in 2017. The opponent won't be Illinois — it would be either Purdue or Minnesota — and Northwestern surely would recognize that fans weren't enthused with the first experience. Ticket prices would assuredly be lower.
Other alterations need to be made. One-way football was embarrassing. Sure, it was kind of quirky and drew publicity, but it was a net negative. That should change though, with Wrigley set for on-field renovations.
The reason that it almost assuredly makes sense to play a game at Wrigley is that the buzz, both locally and nationally, outweighs the inconvenience. Sight lines are secondary to the added attention. If you're going to the game to be a football purist and see every inch of the field on every play, you're probably not the person Northwestern is trying to court. If you're in the top 5 or 10 percent of Northwestern fans when it comes to loyalty, you're probably coming to the game anyway. And if you're not, you're probably not going to see Minnesota or Purdue at 11 a.m. in November at Ryan Field anyway.
That's the other thing. We're talking about Minnesota or Purdue, two of the least attractive opponents in the conference. Wrigley, you could argue, would detract from what would already be a good experience if Northwestern were playing Iowa or Wisconsin. But the list of "reasons to go to Ryan Field to watch Northwestern vs. Minnesota/Purdue" can be written in its entirety on a pinky nail. The list of "reasons to go to Wrigley Field to watch Northwestern vs Minnesota/Purdue" is significantly longer.
Like it or not though, this isn't even about the dedicated fans. If you're reading this, it's probably not about you. Playing at Wrigley is pretty emblematic of the marketing scheme that Phillips and Northwestern have employed over the past half decade. And while we scoff at the "Chicago's Big Ten Team" moniker and other athletic department ploys, they work. Football attendance skyrocketed, by over 11,000 fans per home game, from 2009 to 2010, and has remained high. Basketball attendance has risen every year since Phillips took over as AD.
Northwestern needs to get casual fans in purple and to games. That's what it has tried to do. With a small alumni network in comparison to conference rivals, drawing unaffiliated fans to Wildcat games is darn near the top of the priority list. It might be at the top.
Some might say that the first foray into Wrigley failed in that regard. The logistics were botched and the quality of the game was disappointing. But College freakin' Gameday was here! Casual college football fans who didn't watch a minute of Northwestern all year tuned in for at least a few minutes. More importantly, Chicago sports fans — a massive demographic compared to Northwestern fans — at worst were aware of the game, and at best were intrigued enough to buy a ticket for the game, attend it and enjoy it. Playing at Wrigley allows Northwestern athletics to infiltrate the minds of Chicagoans, even those who aren't Northwestern alumni.
Northwestern at Wrigley Field will not be perfect. But assuming the program and athletic department have learned from 2010, it will be fine, and has the potential to be a resounding success.