Twelve angry Northwestern students gathered in a classroom, wondering how to make people cheer.
The Wildside – known as the official student section of NU athletics – held a Tuesday night open meeting. Their president, Alex Wilcox, tried to engage his small audience.
“Tell me,” he said, “your favorite memory from a basketball game at Welsh-Ryan Arena.”
They went around the circle, and everyone had an answer. When Alex Marcotullio hit the memorable three-pointer to tie Ohio State last February, if only for a moment. When John Shurna broke the all-time scoring record. The list goes on.
Even without that long-awaited NCAA Tournament appearance, Northwestern basketball rarely lacks entertainment. In their most recent home game, despite several injuries, the Wildcats upset No. 12 Minnesota.
Still noticeable from that game, though, was the lack of student attendance. The section holds 976 people, and their admission is free. Yet with a top-15 team in town, the area behind both hoops was at least half-empty.
The Wildside is entrusted with promoting athletic events — a job especially important for men’s basketball. Games like Minnesota are difficult for the group to ignore.
“Certainly, I’m frustrated,” Wilcox said. “But I understand reasons why Northwestern students don’t attend games. I’m not one to blame them.”
Members take it seriously. They take it personally. They pore over the team schedule, looking for promotional opportunities and dreaming of that packed student section.
Fans might watch Northwestern games and wonder why students fail to rally behind their basketball team. But they might miss knowing about these diehard fans trying to curb apathy. It is a selfless task, but in that room, they really care.
‘Fix Some Perceptions’
On Sept. 26, 2009, the Northwestern football team lost to Minnesota, 35-24. During the game, Wilcox – then a freshman – looked up from his seat. The student section was largely empty. The Columbia, S.C. native and former South Carolina football season ticket holder knew where to become involved.
Around that time, the Wildside was an athletic department startup in its first year. Their first president, Megan Dunham, helped to spread the name. There was potential.
“It wasn’t terrible,” Wilcox said. “They were looking to improve it and fix some perceptions about Northwestern athletics that existed amongst students.”
By the 2010-2011 school year, the Wildside began to develop its identity. At most universities, there is a functional basketball student section. But at Northwestern, even football games require considerable promotion. It was becoming clear that this type of organization needed to exist.
Shawn Sullivan was named director of sales and marketing for NU Athletics in July 2011, and has worked closely with the Wildside in recent years. Though Sullivan was not around for its inception, he talked about the initial importance of strong leadership.
“My assumption is that (the athletic department) wanted to find a dedicated core group that could take the torch and run with it,” Sullivan said.
They found their guy in Wilcox. Now in his second year as Wildside president, the dedicated leader and the other eight executive board members plan events for nearly every home basketball game. And for every game, they take to social media and implore students to attend. With help from Sullivan and the athletic department – which funds their work – the Wildside sees its ideas realized. But the major problem still exists.
For the matchup with Minnesota, the Wildside promoted “Res Life Night.” The residence hall with the highest number of students in attendance would earn a pizza party. The only condition: the winning dorm needed a minimum of 25 students. No one brought more than 23.
Jonathan Easter, a freshman at his first general Wildside meeting, joined the effort with contagious spirit that characterizes the group. Despite the small turnout, they remain undeterred.
“We can get students aware of the games,” Easter said. “If nothing else, even if they don’t go. The awareness, even if it doesn’t bring people, that’s what we can do.”
‘To the Masses’
The brand continues to spread. Northwestern Wildside has more than 2,500 Facebook likes. And a recent poll added to their popularity.
Since the Nov. 27 contest against Maryland, the Wildside has carried a “Big Head” to every game. Members hold up giant cutout faces of former Northwestern students to distract opposing players as they shoot free throws. Recent faces included Seth Meyers, Michael Wilbon and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. For the upcoming Purdue game, they changed it up. They set up a poll on the Facebook page to decide who would be the next Big Face.
“We decided to get students involved,” Wilcox said. “It was great to hear their input.”
That input might not have been so constructive, though. The poll had several preset suggestions – including Mr. Feeny from “Boy Meets World” – but users could also submit their own responses.
From the football drum major, to WNUR Sports Director (and super fan) Seth Bernstein, new options flew from every direction. The Wildside didn’t expect it, but they had no reason to complain. According to Wilcox, the poll received 17,000 views. It was a strange but monumental PR victory.
Most important to Sullivan, though, is that the group discovers new passionate fans. The name is out there. Now, they hope to add to their ranks.
“The Wildside is known as a group that’s rowdy at games,” Sullivan said. “They’re trying to get more of (those fans).
“How do you multiply that to the masses?”
The group fights an interesting battle to get there. They strive to increase awareness, for games and for their organization. Sean McQuade, a sophomore from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is at the heart of their selfless cause. Asked what his position with Wildside was, he paused for a moment before settling on “promotions committee.”
He and his friend, executive board member Gram Bowsher, started to attend meetings in their freshman year.
“Now Gram pressures me into coming every week,” McQuade joked.
Still, it irks McQuade when he meets with faculty members and tells them of his involvement with Wildside. They often respond: “What’s that?”
McQuade attends home games when possible, as do most committed Wildside members. Unlike some Big Ten environments, front row seats are relatively easy to come by. And regardless of whether the student section is packed or virtually empty, that front row of Wildside members and the student faithful is always rocking.
“It’s a moral victory,” he said. “(You) practice what you preach.”
How, though, can you pitch moral victories to apathetic students?
‘Things Going On’
The scariest issue is this: no one knows exactly why students are failing to show up. Sullivan said that early research indicates the poor attendance is not due to a lack of awareness.
Last season marked the highest student attendance to basketball games in Northwestern history. Suddenly, they stopped showing up. The sample size is small, but the concern is real.
“We’re always trying to get better,” Sullivan said. “From a marketing standpoint, we want to know: ‘Are we missing something?’ If anyone has a thought … Let us know. We’re all ears.”
Wilcox asked another question at the Tuesday meeting: “When did you last miss a Northwestern game and why?”
Many of the serious fans, the ones who trekked through the rain to the meeting, missed a game recently. Most had classes, work, or meetings – the essential NU activities.
Wilcox said that in order to attend certain games, he needs to make sacrifices. He realizes others may not think the same way. But he never blames them.
“I feel like Northwestern sports are at a point where they’re very competitive,” Wilcox said. “I don’t want to at all speak badly of students. They have a lot of things going on.”
Everything hit the fan against Minnesota. After arriving at Welsh-Ryan late, Easter and his friend watched the end of the upset. As NU pulled away in the late stages, they darted up to the front row – hoping to rush the court. The game ended, and very few people in the small student section even flinched.
“No one tried to do anything,” Easter said.
Many took to Twitter and complained about student commitment. And no doubt, it irritates the Wildside. Against Minnesota, it was Res Life Night. Against Purdue on Saturday, it will be a reunion for freshman orientation groups. They are giving out free donuts before the game.
“We would love it to be packed,” freshman center Alex Olah said of the 11 a.m. home game. Given recent turnout, though, it’s hard to even think of a packed student section.
Change is on the way. At the Tuesday meeting, Wildside members proposed several ideas for upcoming promotions. They made plans for every game except for the Feb. 20 matchup with Wisconsin. That will be resolved later.
“You know there are people at Northwestern who watch sports,” McQuade said, “but they only show up to two or three games.
“It’s always frustrating. That’s what we’re trying to change. Anything we do only goes so far.”
The story of the Wildside is not a story of failure. It never will be. Approximately 4,500 students went to the Michigan football game on Oct. 8, 2011 – an incredible number. And again, just last season, NU witnessed its highest men’s basketball attendance in history. The group has earned the respect of the athletic department.
“The crew that has been the core leadership over the last couple of years, from what I’ve seen, is terrific,” Sullivan said. “They have duties well beyond what volunteer duties would be.”
The executive board takes pride in its work. The Wildside website has several photos of board members posing at various venues – most recently behind the Gator Bowl trophy at a championship celebration.
Wilcox can draw practical experience from the Wildside. He is interested in athletic marketing. The experience, to him and to many others, has been special.
“This is the best thing that could have happened to me,” Wilcox said. “You see incredible rewards.”
As for the future of Wildside, he has one wish.
“It’s not like I want Wildside to grow and be the greatest thing ever,” he said. “I want it to not have to be a group. I want students to go to games because they want to.”
After the 45-minute meeting on Tuesday, some lingered in the classroom. An executive board member stood at the chalkboard, devising a formula. In case they hold a contest to see which Greek organizations can bring the most members to a basketball game, she wanted to ensure that the smaller fraternities had a fighting chance of winning.
They do everything they can to increase student attendance. It might not be enough. But they’ll keep trying.
Wilcox wants the group to be unnecessary. Yet when you see how much Wildside members love their work, you leave with a different impression.
You get the feeling they could be here forever.
Follow on Twitter: @NicholasMedline