Capacity, Attendance, and "Fullness" in the New Ryan Field

With last week's announcement of a planned replacement for Ryan Field, I've been thinking about the changes to capacity, NU football's typical attendance, and how a smaller stadium impacts the feeling of "fullness" at a game.

For the purposes of this post, the existing stadium will be referred to as Ryan Field. The new-and-improved stadium that they're planning to build, backed by the absurd morally indefensible in a time of global crises hey it's not my money why the hell not incredibly generous donation from the Ryan Family, will be Ryaner Field. I look forward to the next great renovation in 25 or so years, which will undoubtedly be the Ryanest Field of all.


Let's start with some baseline comparisons for capacity, with numbers coming from Wikipedia. Ryan Field can currently hold 47,130 fans (itself down from Dyche Stadium's peak capacity of 55,000). The new Ryaner Field will reportedly have a capacity of 35,000.

Ryan Field is already the smallest home venue in the Big Ten, and the new stadium will have an even larger gap.

Stadium School Conference Capacity # of Ryaner Fields
Michigan Stadium Michigan Big Ten 107,601 3.07
Beaver Stadium Penn State Big Ten 106,572 3.04
Ohio Stadium Ohio State Big Ten 102,780 2.94
Rose Bowl Stadium UCLA Big Ten (soon) 90,888 2.60
Memorial Stadium, Tom Osborne Field Nebraska Big Ten 85,458 2.44
Camp Randall Stadium Wisconsin Big Ten 80,321 2.29
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum USC Big Ten (soon) 77,500 2.21
Spartan Stadium Michigan State Big Ten 75,005 2.14
Kinnick Stadium Iowa Big Ten 70,585 2.02
Memorial Stadium Illinois Big Ten 60,670 1.73
Ross–Ade Stadium Purdue Big Ten 57,236 1.64
Memorial Stadium Indiana Big Ten 52,959 1.51
SHI Stadium Rutgers Big Ten 52,454 1.50
SECU Stadium Maryland Big Ten 51,802 1.48
Huntington Bank Stadium Minnesota Big Ten 50,805 1.45
Ryan Field Northwestern Big Ten 47,130 1.35
Ryaner Field Northwestern Big Ten 35,000 1.00

More than half of the conference will have home venues greater than twice the size of Ryaner Field. Even if we exclude the biggest brand names of the conference, all but two (Maryland and Minnesota) will have at least 50% higher capacity than Ryaner Field will. (And those two are both almost 50% bigger.)

Compared to non-B1G peer institutions --- for the purposes of this post, private schools in P5 conferences --- the difference is less stark but still present.

Stadium School Conference Capacity # of Ryaner Fields
Notre Dame Stadium Notre Dame ACC 77,622 2.22
Hard Rock Stadium Miami ACC 65,326 1.87
Stanford Stadium Stanford Pac-12 50,424 1.44
JMA Wireless Dome Syracuse ACC 49,250 1.41
Ryan Field Northwestern Big Ten 47,130 1.35
McLane Stadium Baylor Big 12 45,140 1.29
Alumni Stadium Boston College ACC 44,500 1.27
Vanderbilt Stadium Vanderbilt SEC 40,350 1.15
Brooks Field at Wallace Wade Stadium Duke ACC 40,000 1.14
Ryaner Field Northwestern Big Ten 35,000 1.00
Truist Field Wake Forest ACC 31,500 0.90

In this group, Ryaner Field stands out a little less. Only Notre Dame is more than twice the size of Ryaner Field, and Wake Forest will still play in a smaller stadium. But where Ryan Field is decidedly middle-of-the-pack in this group, Ryaner Field is definitely near the bottom of the list.

Supposing the conference realignment dominoes fall in a way that is... uh... not favorable to Northwestern, here's where Ryaner Field stacks up against the MAC:

Stadium School Conference Capacity # of Ryaner Fields
Ryan Field Northwestern Big Ten 47,130 1.35
Ryaner Field Northwestern Big Ten 35,000 1.00
Kelly/Shorts Stadium Central Michigan MAC 30,255 0.86
Rynearson Stadium Eastern Michigan MAC 30,200 0.86
Waldo Stadium Western Michigan MAC 30,200 0.86
InfoCision Stadium–Summa Field Akron MAC 30,000 0.86
UB Stadium Buffalo MAC 29,013 0.83
Glass Bowl Toledo MAC 26,038 0.74
Dix Stadium Kent State MAC 25,000 0.71
Fred C. Yager Stadium Miami MAC 24,286 0.69
Doyt L. Perry Stadium Bowling Green MAC 24,000 0.69
Peden Stadium Ohio MAC 24,000 0.69
Brigham Field at Huskie Stadium NIU MAC 23,595 0.67
Scheumann Stadium Ball State MAC 22,500 0.64

And just for fun, here's where things line up with the FCS-level Ivy League:

Stadium School Conference Capacity # of Ryaner Fields
Yale Bowl Yale Ivy 61,446 1.76
Franklin Field Penn Ivy 52,593 1.50
Ryan Field Northwestern Big Ten 47,130 1.35
Ryaner Field Northwestern Big Ten 35,000 1.00
Harvard Stadium Harvard Ivy 30,323 0.87
Powers Field at Princeton Stadium Princeton Ivy 27,800 0.79
Schoellkopf Field Cornell Ivy 21,500 0.61
Brown Stadium Brown Ivy 20,000 0.57
Robert K. Kraft Field at Lawrence A. Wien Stadium Columbia Ivy 17,000 0.49
Memorial Field Dartmouth Ivy 15,000 0.43

Is Northwestern going to be relegated to the MAC or jump to the Ivy League? No. Of course not. Probably. But as we collectively reassess the economics and ethics of football in general and college football in particular, anything is possible? If the 'Cats do end up bumped out of a P5 conference, a 35,000-capacity stadium is a pretty good size relative to our hypothetical competition.


Now let's establish some baselines for attendance.

The least-attended game in the last 15 years of Northwestern football was the 2007 season opener against Northeastern, with just 16,199 fans present. It was a perfect combination of factors to depress attendance:

  • The game took place before students were on campus.
  • Northeastern was an FCS team with little fan support. (Northeastern would go on to cancel its program entirely after the 2009 season.)
  • Boston isn't exactly local and Northeastern doesn't have enough of a presence in Chicago to draw local fans. (Not that they would anyway, because, again, not a lot of fan support.)

The 2007 season was also before Northwestern's "Chicago's Big Ten Team" marketing efforts started. As much as I enjoyed the idea of a Northeastern/Northwestern directional rivalry, it wasn't a matchup likely to motivate many casual fans to make the trip to Ryan Field.

The Northeastern game is useful, then, for identifying the rock-bottom floor of Northwestern's modern fan support. Let's round down and say that the fewest fans we can reasonably expect to attend an NU game is 16,000.

But not every game is against the Northeasterns of the world.

From Hail to Purple's invaluable attendance tracking, let's look at the average attendance per season since 2007:

Season Average Attendance % Ryan Field % Ryaner Field
2007 24,589 52.17% 70.25%
2008 28,590 60.66% 81.69%
2009 24,190 51.33% 69.11%
2010 36,449 77.34% 104.14%
2011 33,442 70.96% 95.55%
2012 35,697 75.74% 101.99%
2013 39,307 83.40% 112.31%
2014 38,613 81.93% 110.32%
2015 33,366 70.80% 95.33%
2016 34,798 73.83% 99.42%
2017 35,853 76.07% 102.44%
2018 43,873 93.09% 125.35%
2019 37,736 80.07% 107.82%
2020 0 0.00% 0.00%
2021 30,796 65.34% 87.99%

A few things stand out to me:

  • This is maybe obvious, but expanding the stadium definitely doesn't make sense. A typical NU season leaves Ryan Field 20-30% empty (see also the infamous tarp), and putting Northwestern football in a Kinnick or a Spartan Stadium just wouldn't work.
  • Excluding 2020 for pandemicky reasons, seven of the last 15 seasons had an average attendance below Ryaner Field's 35,000 capacity and seven had an average attendance above 35,000.
  • The least-attended season of the last 15 years (again, excluding 2020) was 2009, barely half-full in Ryan Field. In the new Ryaner Field, comparable lackluster attendance would still be close to 70% capacity.


How much do capacity and attendance matter?

Since conference realignment is being driven by TV revenues, what are the meaningful benefits of a large capacity in-person stadium packed with fans? I would guess the three main benefits are:

  • Ticket sales revenue
  • More fans get an opportunity to see the team in person and affiliate with the school
  • Exciting atmosphere, for both players and fans

Since NU has already decided on a smaller stadium, we can assume they've done the math on ticket sales revenue and determined that the handful of 35,000+ games per season isn't worth maintaining the existing venue. And from the attendance data of the past 15 years, it doesn't look like we've been turning fans away at the door.

But generating that exciting atmosphere definitely does matter.

Let's go back to that 2009 season, the least-attended season of the last 15 years. Despite the unimpressive attendance, Mike Kafka led the team to an 8-4 regular season record with a top-10 win. The final home game of the season was a thrilling 33-31 win over a ranked Wisconsin that was probably one of the best and most exciting games from my time as a student at NU. When I think about that game, I remember the stadium being packed and the crowd being energized from start to finish.

What was the attendance for that game? Surprisingly, just 32,150 --- just 68% of Ryan Field's capacity. Memory is a funny thing.

As a fan and (I assume!) as a player, it's hard to maintain enthusiasm in a venue that feels empty and dead. By contrast, when the stadium feels packed and loud you're not stopping to do a headcount even if the actual attendance hasn't cracked 70%.

Clearly, the team needs to provide something worth cheering for and people in seats isn't sufficient for creating a good atmosphere. But I would argue there's some minimum threshold of fullness that's necessary for a good atmosphere.

Just picking a number out of thin air, I'll say a stadium needs to be two-thirds full to feel "full." So 66.7% is our minimum requirement for a good game atmosphere.

So will Ryaner Field give us those good game atmospheres? I'm going to say: Probably!

  • At our rock-bottom baseline of 16,000 fans, Ryaner Field will be 46% full (compared to 34% in Ryan Field).
  • In a 2009-style low attendance season, Ryaner Field will average 69% full. Excluding 2020, every season's average attendance from the last 15 years would be above the 66.7% "fullness" line.
  • Ten of the last 15 seasons had average attendance that would be 90% or higher for Ryaner Field.

When I started exploring these numbers, my initial gut feeling was that 35,000 is too small by maybe 5,000 to 10,000. Maybe that's still true. But I'm surprised by how much 35,000 feels... right. Although it's an outlier relative to the rest of the Big Ten, Ryan Field seems appropriately sized for us. Most games are going to be pretty packed, no tarps will be required, and there's the potential for a good atmosphere. I'm sure fans of other schools will mock Northwestern for being small, but hey, I'm not particularly bothered by that if going to games is fun and exciting.