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Op-Ed: If Northwestern is serious about men’s basketball success, it’ll expand Welsh-Ryan Arena’s student section

The Wildside was impossible to ignore against Illinois. Imagine what it would’ve been like if it was twice as large.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Let me start by stating the obvious: Wednesday night was a triumphant moment for the Northwestern men’s basketball program.

After four years of futility, the ‘Cats finally knocked off their in-state rivals from Urbana-Champaign, boosting both their hopes of an NCAA Tournament berth and Brad Underwood’s blood pressure all at once. As a senior that has watched Chris Collins’ team struggle against the Illini in Evanston each of my prior three years at NU, it warmed my heart to see the guys in purple and white — err, red and light blue and white — take down the enemies from downstate at Welsh-Ryan Arena in their last attempt before I graduate.

It’s a damn shame, then, that I wasn’t able to attend the game in-person like I had planned because of what can only be described as poor prioritization on the part of Northwestern Athletics.

Throughout my four years here, I’ve gone to countless games at Welsh-Ryan, both as a fan and as a reporter. I’ve never once witnessed anything like the absolute chaos I saw on Wednesday night.

From the get-go, it was clear to me that this would be no ordinary outing. When I arrived at the Jacobs Center Game Day Shuttle stop at 7:15 to a crowd of several dozen students waiting to board the bus — and when the next shuttle that passed was already jam packed from the lone prior stop on its route — it was clear that student turnout was bound to be much higher than normal.

When I boarded the Uber I called once I realized the shuttle plan wouldn’t work and started to make my way down Sheridan Road, I noticed increasingly larger crowds hopelessly gathered at each stop along the shuttle route. I snickered to myself, thinking I had outsmarted them all and would make it into the game as they watched from home.

That was, of course, until I actually arrived around 7:30, nearly 30 minutes prior to scheduled tip.

The scene outside of WRA was utter pandemonium. No less than 500 NU students, clad in white for the occasion, all angrily pushed towards the arena’s entrance while event staff shouted over them that Wildside capacity had been reached and no more students would be allowed in.

Between those stranded at Game Day Shuttle stops, the mob of white-wearing college kids huddled around the entrance at the time of my arrival and the waves of students, blissfully unaware of the fate they would meet, still making their way to the game as I gave up and headed home, it seemed there were more students barred from entry than there were student attendees. If I had to guess, some 1,000+ Northwestern students – who are, in essence, forced to pay for a season ticket package, disguised as an “Athletics Events Fee” in their tuition — that wanted to go to Wednesday night’s contest were denied the opportunity to do so.

Meanwhile, the arena looked like this:

Now, let’s set aside the fact that, for reasons that continue to make zero sense to me, NU Athletics actually seemingly reduced student capacity for this game — the first of the winter quarter, the first in-conference home bout with students on-campus of the season — by taking Section 103 (designated as a student section in the official seating chart) away from the students and giving it to the general public. Also set aside the fact that the Wilson Club, the very best seats in the house, sat partially empty for the entirety of the game (I’d need a whole other piece to cover the ins and outs of that debacle).

Let’s just focus on what you can see in that video.

Where there are students, the crowd is wearing white, the color of the home team. Where there are not... not so much.

The majority of attendees at Northwestern men’s basketball’s best night in Evanston in years — hell, maybe since the new Welsh-Ryan Arena opened — walked away upset that their team had lost. Because the majority of attendees were Illinois fans. Because Northwestern Athletics chose to keep the student section limited and keep hundreds of its most engaged fans — the students — out of the building so that it could sell more tickets to buyers it surely knew would come clad in orange.

That strategy may be in the best interest of short-term revenue. It surely is the standard the athletics department has set before, when it turned away students at last year’s Illinois and Purdue games while sold out crowds of largely opposing fans sat inside. NU is welcome to keep the layout of the arena as is and watch as opposing fanbases pay for seats that could otherwise be filled by students.

But if Northwestern actually wants to set itself up with the best possible home-court advantage as it attempts to make a run at March Madness, then it will have to abandon its practices of failed seasons past and make a change: it’s time to make Welsh-Ryan Arena’s student section bigger. A lot bigger.

Let’s face it: we Northwestern fans are outnumbered by most Big Ten fanbases here in Chicagoland. There will likely always be more of them than there are of us. It’s not our fault. This is by far the biggest metro area in the midwest, where many regional college students settle down after they graduate. And, to put it mildly, there are a lot more graduates of other Big Ten schools than there are Northwestern alums.

The best chance Northwestern has to tip the scales in its own favor is to set aside as many seats as possible for people who are guaranteed to root for the Wildcats. And there’s really no way to do that other than to expand the student capacity from approximately 800 (where it was for the Illinois game) to something more like 1,800.

So my proposal is this: make both baselines of the arena Wildside for the remainder of the season. Upper and lower levels. From end to end. Make shooting at Welsh-Ryan Arena a daunting task for opponents no matter what way they face or how high or low they look. From the looks of it, no other games are sold out yet, so offer season ticket or single-game ticket holders in the upper level baseline sections seats on the upper sideline for free.

Some may worry that many of these these seats would lie empty. If the team’s performance declines, then sure, it’s very likely that they would. But, in that case, there will be plenty of unsold seats elsewhere in the arena, too. Why should Athletics only care about the empty seats left behind by students?

Moreover, if the team continues the inspiring and gritty run that it has begun the season on, imagine what such a shift would do to the environment at Welsh-Ryan. The student body has demonstrated its willingness to show up for teams that are competitive, so it’s doubtful that the student demand would decline from where it was Wednesday night. The ‘Cats would have a wall of sound and chaos at either end of the floor. The place would instantly go from a de facto neutral site venue to one of the most intimidating atmospheres in the conference, on account of its compactness and the percentage of rowdy college students filling the stands.

Either way, Northwestern stands only to lose a max of 1,000 tickets a game worth of revenue and stands to gain an enhanced experience for its students, athletes and fans. And given how significant of a role home-court advantage plays in college basketball, it’s entirely possible that the shift would significantly help NU qualify for just its second NCAA Tournament in program history.

Even though I never made it into the building on Wednesday night, I was still glad to see Ty Berry and Chris Collins give their love to the students who did in their media availabilities after the win. It’s clear that the players and coaches know the impact that the Wildside can make, even in its current state.

Derrick Gragg and his team of athletics administrators should follow their lead. It may not be the easy thing to do. It may not be the cost-effective thing to do. But it’s the winning thing to do, and it’s the right thing to do. And that should be enough.