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Discussing the WAC with The Daily Northwestern’s Ben Pope

Two NU student journalists dish on the WAC, attendance, and football culture

Talia Hendel/Inside NU

I wrote a column last week about the Walter Athletics Center and the gap in enthusiasm between students and the university/donors. Ben Pope, the gameday editor at the Daily Northwestern, responded on Friday with a column headlined “A stronger football culture isn’t attainable for Northwestern, and that’s OK.”

Clearly, we disagreed on a couple things, so I reached out to Ben asking if he would flesh some of his arguments out in a back-and-forth. He graciously accepted. Here are our respective thoughts:

Davis Rich: Ben, I thought you made some excellent points in your column. You pointed out several factors (size, geographic diversity, academic excellence) that limit Northwestern’s football culture and game attendance. I disagree with the idea that a better football culture “isn’t attainable,” but the athletic department certainly has its work cut out for them.

Here’s my question. The university and its donors just sunk $270 million into the Walter Athletics Center, and students, in my experience, aren’t particularly enthused. Some have asked if the university’s priorities are misaligned. Is it important that students aren’t on board with the new investment? In your opinion, do they need to be?

Ben Pope: Thank you. I appreciate you bringing up this subject in your column and I thought you made some insightful points — for example, that donors, not the University, choose what project they wish to donate to. This is an extremely important dynamic to understand and essentially renders student complaints that the money wasn’t diverted toward (admittedly also crucial) mental health and equal opportunity resources pointless, if admirable.

Frankly, I imagine most of those who have been vocal opponents of this spending venture weren’t NU football fans before the project was announced, nor would they have become football fans if the $270 million was spent elsewhere. That’s not to say it’s impossible to support NU football and also believe the Walter Athletics Center was excessive — I’m sure there are plenty who fall into both circles simultaneously — but generally, I doubt anyone who used to attend football games will stop because of this.

On the other hand, I also doubt many students who previously didn’t attend games will start because of the WAC, or even start if the team suddenly becomes more successful as a result. Football fandom is rarely an interest developed after age 18: some incoming freshmen care about football, and some don’t, and I don’t think those tastes will change substantially during their four years in Evanston. That’s where NU’s lack of overall numbers makes such a difference. I’d guess the percentage of incoming freshmen at, say, Wisconsin who are interested in football is not that much higher than the percentage of incoming freshmen at NU who are — there are just four times more of them.

I have a few questions back: Why do you think the Walter Athletics Center will make a difference, either positively or negatively, on student football interest?

Davis Rich: I think this is where we disagree — I think Walter Athletics Center can get Northwestern where it needs to go as a football program.

Earlier this summer, Pat Fitzgerald said “I think from a recruiting standpoint, either you have facilities or you don’t.” For years, NU lagged behind the rest of the Big Ten in terms of athletic facilities. And while Fitz and his staff tend to target three-star recruits in general, Trienens Hall and the rest of the football facilities weren’t exactly helping their cause.

That could change now. The academic pitch that Fitz and his staff have when it comes to recruiting remains — only now NU can show off the most expensive athletic facilities in the country (at least for now).

It’s hard to say if the facilities are making an impact yet, but WAC has played a role in at least one 2019 recruit’s commitment and the program should reap more benefits over time.

And if WAC can attract better recruits, the on-field product ~should~ be better, to the point where NU is credibly in the Big Ten West competition each season.

So if you follow my logic, these facilities could attract better recruits, which could create a better football team, which can 1) create a buzz around the team on campus (think back to the 5-0 start in 2015) and 2) generate a perception about NU as a school with the best of both worlds — top-tier academics and a football team that is excellent year in and year out. I think it’s true that football isn’t a priority for many students on campus, but there are prospective students like me who chose Northwestern in part because of its Big Ten athletics, and those are students NU could make inroads with.

You could point to Stanford and note that the Cardinal are perennial Pac-12 contenders who still haven’t attracted considerable student interest. But, having lived in Palo Alto and in Evanston, I think there is something unique about the Midwest and Big Ten football — it just matters a bit more here.

It may sound “Field of Dreams”-esque, but I think if NU can create an contending program, the student interest will follow.

What do you think? Am I crazy?

Ben Pope: Here’s the thing: NU is already a contending program. And all these attendance concerns still exist.

Certainly, there’s room to improve, most notably in terms of year-over-year consistency — consistently hitting double-digit wins rather than alternating 10-3 and .500-ish campaigns. And the recruiting has even more room to improve, and I’m just as much of a believer as you that the WAC will make a substantial difference in that regard.

But all in all, the Wildcats have been a pretty good program this decade; Fitz heralds the “top 15 in wins over the last three years” stat all the time. Yet even when NU is a good and/or ranked team hosting ultra-important games at Ryan Field, attendance still isn’t great.

  • 2012, with 6-1 record and hosting 4-2 Nebraska: East side almost entirely red
  • 2013, undefeated, ranked #16 and hosting #4 OSU on Saturday Night Football: student section was actually packed, but the East side is still almost entirely red
  • 2015, ranked #20 and hosting undefeated #17 Iowa: lots of yellow on both sides
  • 2017, a seemingly decent (actually really good) team hosting #16 Michigan State: one-third-full student section

That 2013 game was about as big as you could ever hope for, and admittedly it garnered an incredible display of student support, even though the alumni base still couldn’t out-bid Buckeye Nation for half the game’s tickets. And I’d even chalk up that student showing to a one-time phenomenon — College Gameday was what made the difference, and even Wisconsin and Michigan aren’t getting a home Gameday appearance more than once every year or two.

Lastly, as a one-off point, you are probably right that football matters a bit more in the Midwest than on the West Coast. But a very large portion of NU students, including yourself, aren’t from the Midwest. After Illinois, NU’s next-largest student populations by state are California, New York and Florida, per College Factual. Unless you’re a USC, UF or FSU fan (and if you are, well, you’re probably not going to suddenly start rooting for NU), those states aren’t exactly known for their football reverence.

Davis Rich: You make a good point about NU fans being outnumbered at big games — I remember the stadium erupting for MSU touchdowns last fall.

I think this is a decent segue into what I talked about at the end of my column last week: the idea of worth and value when it comes to the Walter Athletics Center. It seems like we agree that the WAC will improve Wildcat recruiting. The question I posed asked if that will matter if recruits know Ryan Field will be overrun with opposing fans.

That may have no impact at all. But if it does, and if students don’t engage with the football program more than they are right now, then I don’t see much value in the new facilities, at least not $270 million of value. What do you think? What will make the WAC worth the investment?

Ben Pope: That’s interesting, because I think there’s still great value in the WAC investment — in fact, I’d venture that the university and athletic department internally knew all along that building it wouldn’t make a difference in fan support. That lack of a large fanbase and stringent academic requirements (which are tied to each other, too) are two challenges NU will always face in recruiting.

For a long time, facilities were a third major challenge. That was fixable, however, and fix it NU did. Just because NU now has an athletics center on the same level as Oregon, Clemson, etc. doesn’t mean they’ll start recruiting five-stars left and right like Oregon and Clemson do, but I do think it’ll help them start recruiting at a level more comparable to Big Ten peers. As you’ve pointed out, it’s already being cited by recruits as a factor in their decision.

In terms of a more existential definition of value — value to the student body and the University overall — I think that requires the big-picture perspective that undergraduates matter little to Northwestern’s overall financial situation. To make a long story short, us undergraduates think we matter a lot more than we do.

High tuitions costs are maligned all the time, yet net tuition revenue at both the undergraduate and graduate school level ($581 million) composes only 26 percent of overall annual University revenue ($2.2 billion). Private gifts, meanwhile, have held steady at about $200 million every year — almost the entire cost of the WAC itself. Yes, Northwestern has had some temporary financial struggles lately, but the scope of the financial picture is way, way, way bigger than meets the eye. That, in my opinion, makes it really difficult to judge the intangible value of a $270 million investment like this facility. And to make a cruelly honest assessment, if student tuition only composes 26 percent of revenue, that theoretically gives student opinion only a 26 percent say in where NU spends its money, anyway. (An addendum: I’m not saying whether or not this is the way it should be, but this is probably how the Board of Trustees sees it.)

Am I taking too cynical an approach here? How will you personally measure whether the WAC lives up to its price tag? Is on-field improvement not really enough to validate it in your eyes?

Davis Rich: As a current NU student, it’s tough to stomach the idea that our interests matter little to the university. I’d certainly hope you’re overstating how little student opinion matters, but I don’t have any data points to contest it.

Now as to what will make the WAC worth it. First, the expectation has to be raised on the field. I don’t think 5-7 or 6-6 finishes will be acceptable — NU has to credibly compete for the Big Ten West from now on. A better football should attract more alumni interest and donorship to all areas of the university. Creating value for the university in other ways — that will make the investment worth it.

And I stand by what I said in my column last week — I think the students need to come along for the ride too. At the least, NU needs to improve its football culture — attendance, gameday experience, the way football is perceived and talked about on campus. Sure, improving decrepit facilities was the main reason the WAC was built, but you have to figure drumming up student interest and alumni excitement factored into the calculus too.

Like I said on Wednesday, this probably won’t happen in 2018, and it might not happen by 2028. The WAC will serve NU student-athletes for longer than that, so the window for return on investment is wide.

Anyways, we’re almost 2,000 words in — let’s leave it at that. Thanks again for engaging with me, Ben.

Readers, what are your reactions? Let us know what you think in the comments!