Think back to the Northwestern men’s basketball program of old. Among the images that come to mind — likely a fleeting memory of a glorious full-court pass amidst the thought of many sub-.500 seasons — is a student section that so often went unoccupied. I mean, who blames a bunch of busy, over-achieving nerds for not wanting to go to a random Wednesday night basketball game when the line favors the opponent by double digits?
This case study serves as a perpetual chicken or the egg situation. Was the basketball team bad because people didn’t show up to cheer for their made baskets, or did students not show up because the ‘Cats were often doomed before the tip? Northwestern Athletics would argue the former.
On Sept. 18, NU Athletics sent out an email to the student body publicly announcing the implementation of a new ticket claim process for this year’s sporting events. The gist is that students earn between one and five points for attending different teams’ games, which they can accumulate to nab coveted basketball tickets come winter time. Predictably, more points are divvied out at the competitions of the ‘Cats’ more neglected sports.
Women’s basketball leads the pack, gifting students five points in exchange for their support. Four points are up for grabs at the contest of any Olympic sport. Three points are awarded at football games and men’s basketball’s non-conference matchups. A measly one point is handed out at men’s conference games.
The athletic department says the new system is in place to give students with the most passion the best chance of getting tickets to highly sought after games, mainly February basketball bouts. This move comes after masses of students protested the ticket claim system the department used last year for men’s basketball games — one where students simply raced to press a glitching “Claim” button before their peers.
My question is this: what is wrong with that ancient way of doing things — where students who get to games first get the seats? NU Athletics claims to be initiating a points system because it’ll help reward devout fans. Maybe. But the idea of forcing students to spend a Saturday morning supporting a women’s basketball team that looked allergic to the rim at times last year in the name of school spirit seems like a reach. Truly pious ‘Cats fans had every chance to attend those games and others last year and didn’t for a reason; it’s not because they don’t care about Northwestern sports teams, it’s because they didn’t care about bad Northwestern sports teams.
So back to my premise: make every game first-come, first-serve. If NU Athletics wants a truly meritocratic system, what’s a more even playing field than anybody having the ability to attend a game so long as they show up early? I promise you that a student who camps out two hours before a game — if that’s what the ticket market demands — is not going to go into a basketball arena and stay quiet. They’re invested at that stage. Fans who are half-in, half-out on the idea of going to a game simply won’t arrive as early.
You might argue that forcing a student to commit hours of their time to waiting in a line is exclusionary to those who have a class or a club meeting. I concede, there isn’t a holistically perfect plan. But what’s more exclusionary is boxing out students who love their ‘Cats but are studying abroad, missing a full quarter of point opportunities. What’s more exclusionary is putting incoming freshmen at a disadvantage to upperclassmen, who have had years to up their totals (points roll over year-to-year); perhaps NU Athletics has a plan for this, but it’ll certainly need one.
I don’t intend for this article to be taken as an indictment of non-men’s basketball sports at Northwestern. Plenty of them are more than deserving of the sell-out student sections Boo Buie and Brooks Barnhizer got accustomed to last season. But I question how much more motivated students will be to attend a field hockey game when it’s for four arbitrary points (there’s no benchmark or leaderboard as to how many points will be enough for admission to a basketball game three months from now, so who knows what four points really gets you) than when it’s for Wildside-sponsored pizza and merch.
Admittedly, volleyball had record-breaking turnout for its game against No. 1 Wisconsin and an impressive showing against Yale. But I’ll be interested to see if these figures keep up, given that any time the top-ranked team in a sport comes to town it’s a big deal. Also, Athletics doubled the point total for the Wisconsin game — up to eight. How viable is it to surge every event to incentivize students; is point inflation on the horizon?
As has proven true in many cases, Northwestern would’ve been better leaving it to students rather than trying to micromanage. If the athletic department would at least reveal its guise of a meritocratic-centered points system and acknowledge its urge to capitalize on students wanting to attend an entertaining revenue sport — a rarity at this school — I could live with it. You want more people to show up to women’s basketball games and buy more sodas and soft pretzels? Fair enough.
I’m sympathetic to meritocratic causes. I wish more people showed up to support lacrosse or field hockey. But leveraging attendance at one sports game in order to force fans into another is disingenuous and inconsiderate to truly passionate NU students who have impossibly busy schedules on weekdays, when many of these point-worthy games occur.
Only a couple weeks into the program, and many avid students are being beaten out by their peers who have figured out that points are often accessible as soon as entering a stadium, arena or field. You can imagine that many then flock to the nearest exit. What’s worse is that I’ve been sent the points form from a friend who asked if “I wanted some.” Who could’ve predicted tech-savvy kids would catch on that they can share links with one another via texting?
The best solution is the easiest one. Empower fans who want to cheer on any given day, and stop keeping seats at games hostage.