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OP-ED: Bring back Fitzerland

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It’s time.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

A little over a week ago, Pat Fitzgerald told reporters Northwestern students need to show up to games, bemoaning his team’s fan base for not matching the team’s on-field performance.

He’s completely right. Northwestern gameday atmospheres are worse than most of its Big Ten counterparts, and students don’t show up in great numbers. There are only 8,100+ students at the school to begin with, so...yeah, there are a lot of empty seats for pretty much every home game.

As a student myself, I see this process regularly on Saturdays. Students tailgate before the games in neighborhood off-campus houses, and some trickle out for the 15 minute walk to Ryan Field. If it’s a good tailgate, most students will just stay, electing to skip the game.

There are many reasons people for cite for not going to the games: they don’t actually like football (fair), they think Northwestern’s style is boring (maybe fair), it’s cold outside or it’s just not worth the trek over. From an outsider’s view, these reasons may seem like weak excuses. In some ways, there are.

But, even as someone who’s plugged into everything related to Northwestern sports and goes to pretty much every game, I get it. It’s a cycle: people don’t go because the atmosphere is bad, and the atmosphere is bad because people don’t go. Realistically, a few students aren’t going to change the existing culture.

The entity with the power to do so is the University itself, and there are concrete things Northwestern can do to boost attendance that it isn’t currently doing.

For one thing, it could sell alcohol at Ryan Field. I’m sure there are Evanston-related legal obstacles, but selling alcohol at games would not only create revenue, but add a social element to games that attract students — and Chicagoland fans.

More importantly, though, students need a place to tailgate outside Ryan Field. This existed several years ago with Fitzerland.

Basically, Fitzerland was a student tailgate area next to Ryan Field. Wildside, the official student section at games, introduced and ran the tailgate, which was approved and supervised by the University. Because it was on NU property, certain alcohol rules applied: no communal sources like kegs, no glass bottles and no charcoal grills (and no underage drinking, obviously).

One incident in particular involving a non-Northwestern student going to the hospital after drinking too much caused Northwestern to restrict who could enter the tailgate, how much alcohol students could bring in and more. The restrictions became too much for many students to justify going, and Wildside subsequently shut Fitzerland down.

I understand the feasibility problems and risk management issues associated with students drinking at Univeristy-sanctioned events. There are legitimate safety concerns. The thing is, that’s what happens at off-campus tailgates. People drink in Evanston neighborhoods, often without the same oversight they would theoretically would have at Fitzerland. From Northwestern’s perspective, wouldn’t you rather have students drinking in a controlled environment where you can directly manage risk and monitor it?

Fitz said last week that Ryan Fieldhouse shows a commitment from the University, and it does. But to extend that commitment to another level, Northwestern must do everything in its power to get students to games. If student tailgates can move from off-campus houses to beside Ryan Field, it will easier for students to go to games than to skip games. It would probably be safer than the current system. It would fill the seats, and rally school sprit. It would be fun.

When College GameDay came to Evanston for the Northwestern-Ohio State game in 2013, Fitzerland united a raucous student body right outside Ryan Field. Over 60 percent of the student body attended the game. Those circumstances were certainly abnormal, and that sort of attendance wouldn’t happen every game. But that game showed that Northwestern has the potential for great atmospheres on Saturdays.

If that’s going to happen again, Northwestern needs to create an environment that incentivizes students to congregate beside Ryan Field before games, not in residential Evanston.

At this point, Northwestern has a lot going for it as a program. Top-flight academics, state-of-the-art facilities, close proximity to a world-class city and a great deal of on-field success. A special gameday experience is missing. There are logistical challenges, but that shouldn’t stop the school administration from acting.

Fitz was justified in saying students need to do their part in cultivating a stronger football culture at Northwestern. But so does the University.

Bringing back Fitzerland, without its previous restrictions, would be a good start.