Taking Attendance

No one expects weekly sellouts at Ryan Field. But even when you take into account Northwestern's history of modest home attendance, Ryan Field has been particularly empty this season – just look at this picture from last week's game. Inspired by four games of half-empty stands, Purple Reign looks at Northwestern's attendance over the past decade. This season just doesn't stack up.

Something has been a little off about the goings on at Ryan Field this season.

It's not just the turnovers, although those have been a problem. Twice the Wildcats gave Eastern Michigan the ball inside their own territory via fumbles, and twice more against Minnesota – again because of fumbles.

But that's not it.

It's also not the results. Sure, the Cats lost to Minnesota the other week, but their home record stands at 3-1, which isn't too bad. It would have been nice to not need a last-second field goal against Eastern Michigan. And the game against winless Miami (Ohio) was a bit close, yeah?

But regardless, most fans will probably take 3-1 – even if they were hoping for 4-0, and even if it's been a bit ugly.

So that's not it either.

Actually, what's really looked strange over at Ryan Field hasn't taken place on the field at all. It's been in the stands, where the fans have been decidedly absent this season.

Now, Purple Reign understands that Ryan Field isn't the Big House, it isn't the Horseshoe or Happy Valley. But even when you account for NU's somewhat-sparse attendance history, this season has left a decidedly empty feeling.

Before we get to this season's attendance numbers, let's remember how successful NU was last season. It was the school's first nine-win season since the 90s. So the '09 attendance isn't lagging because the team is going through a rough stretch. The product on the field last season – especially at Ryan Field, where the Cats went 5-2 with their only losses coming to Ohio State and Michigan State – was as good as it's been in a while.

Thus, it's hard to chalk up the empty seats to lack of success. The team has won more games in each of the last two seasons than it had the year before, Fitz got a recent contract extension, and recruiting has picked up – at least according to Scout.com's rankings. All things considered, the football program is in relatively good shape.

But the attendance, well, that's not going quite as well. Not only do the empty seats fail the eye test, but there is numerical evidence that attendance is lagging.*

* The methodology behind this "study" was as follows: Purple Reign went to the official Northwestern Athletic Department Web site, where you can find box scores back to 1999 but no further. So numbers are available for the past decade, which is thus the duration of this analysis.

The attendance woes started at the start of the season, with Towson's visit to Evanston. Now, obviously Towson is not a big draw.* Plus, classes hadn't started yet, so there was a dearth of students on campus, and thus a dearth of students in the stands. Granted. But nonetheless, with an announced attendance of 17,857, it was only the second time in the last 10 years that there were less than 20,000 fans to witness the home-opener. The other was back in 2007 when 16,199 people witnessed the season-opener against Northeastern. Of course, in 2007, NU was coming off of a forgettable 4-8 campaign. Thus, that one is a little easier to rationalize.

* While Towson has zero name value, this isn't the first time that NU has opened the home slate with a patsy. Of course there was Northeastern, but in 2006 it was New Hampshire, and in 2005 it was Ohio. Each of those game drew more than 20,000.

It wasn't, however, just the home-opener. This season was also the first in more than a decade that there were fewer than 22,100 people who witnessed the conference home-opener. When one-loss Minnesota came to Evanston in mid-September, only 22,091 people were there. The previous low, also against Minnesota, was back in 2003, when the attendance was 23,539, about 1,500 more, despite NU being just 2-3 going into that '03 contest.

The previous average for conference home-openers was 37,066. Now, some of those games featured Ohio State and Michigan when those teams were in the Top 10. So getting 37,000 for Minnesota may be an unreasonable expectation. But even Minnesota generally draws better than 22,091. In fact, it's the first time (in the last 11 years) that a Minnesota game has drawn fewer than 23,000, let alone a conference home-opener.

The chart below shows NU's average attendance over the past 10 years. It goes from the highest average home attendance to the lowest. Things will probably pick up with more conference games to come, but right now the 2009 average, 20,568, would rank dead-last. By a lot.

Quick note: You'll notice that there is a column for the average attendance sans the Ohio State or Michigan game. That's because the Ohio State and Michigan games generally cause about a 3,000-fan increase on the season average. For example, the average 2005 attendance was 32,527. But the average 2005 attendance without the Michigan game was 29,606. And in 2004, when OSU played at Ryan Field, the average attendance was 28,408. But the average attendance not including the Buckeyes game was 24,554. Thus, just like Purple Reign likes to look at running backs' yards-per-carry average without their longest run, so, too, did PR look at attendance without the highest-attended game – which was always either Michigan or Ohio State. One stray 80-yard scamper can cause rushing stats to artificially inflate, and one stray sellout can cause attendance numbers to artificially inflate.
Season Overall Record Home Record Avg. Attendance Avg. Att. w/o OSU/Mich.
2001 4-7 2-3 34,743 N/A
2000 8-3 5-1 34,267 31,694 (UM)
2005 7-5 4-2 32,527 29,606 (UM)
1999 3-8 2-4 30,890 N/A
2003 6-7 2-4 28,763 26,379 (UM)
2008 9-4 5-2 28,590 25,500 (OSU)
2004 6-6 5-1 28,408 24,554 (OSU)
2006 4-8 3-3 27,995 24,168 (OSU)
2002 3-9 2-3 27,61023,641 (OSU)
2007 6-6 4-3 24,589 21,920 (UM)

One of the big anomalies of the past 10 years is this: The highest home attendance was in 2001, when an average of 34,743 fans attended games at Ryan Field. That's noteworthy for a few reasons. First off, the team wasn't that good: In 2001, the Cats' record was 4-7, and just 2-3 at home. Possibly buoying attendance that season was the Cats' stellar 2000 campaign, in which the team went 8-3 (and 5-1 at home). But nonetheless, the '01 squad struggled. What's also interesting about that '01 number is that neither Michigan nor Ohio State – which invariably draw the highest attendance of the season – played in Evanston that year.

It was also interesting that of the top five seasons in terms of attendance, the team had a losing record in three of them. And in the bottom five seasons (not including 2009), the team had a .500 record or winning record in three of them.

Also, last season, which was the most successful in terms of wins in a long time, ranked just sixth in attendance out of the past 10 years. An average of 28,590 fans – 25,500 if you don't include Ohio State – went to the 2008 games. But contrast, better than 30,000 attended games in 1999, when the team went 3-8 and 2-4 at home – and neither OSU or Michigan came to Evanston that year.

Right now, Northwestern is averaging 20,568 people per home game. That number will surely rise as Big Ten play continues. Opposing Big Ten fans will be more prone to travel – can't imagine too many Towson fans were inspired enough to make the trek from Baltimore – plus the opponents will be more intriguing, which will likely spur more Northwestern to go to games as well. Miami, after all, doesn't have too much cachet. At least not as much as Penn State.

But even if (or when) things pick up, this season has thus far been unprecedented – well, at least recently – for its lack of attendance. Sure, Miami isn't a big draw. But the two other matchups that NU had with Miami in the past decade – in 2003 and 1999 – averaged 26,161 fans, way over this season's mark of 23,085. And Eastern Michigan drew 21,935 fans back in 2007; this season it was 19,239.

There are various factors that could be at play here. Yeah, people could be disappointed about the team's 4-2 record, and moreover the unimpressive fashion in which that record was compiled. There's that. But there are two more things that could have a drastic, albeit impossible to calculate effect on attendance. The first is television: Between the Big Ten Network and HD TVs, it is easier and more enjoyable to watch games at home than ever before. The home-watching experience is leaps and bounds better than it was back in 1999 – or 2005, for that matter – and on a cold fall day, sometimes curling up in front of a big hi-def screen sounds alright.

There's also the economy. It's likely that people are more strapped for cash than at any point in recent history, at least in the last decade. And while NU ticket prices aren't totally prohibitive, it is nonetheless a non-necessity (to most).

Again, it's hard (read: impossible) to calculate exactly how significant of an impact the TV and broadcasting revolution, coupled with the recession, has had on attendance. But some combination of those two may account for some of this season's attendance slip.

It might take a win this week at Michigan State, or maybe the Penn State game getting picked up on national TV, or something out of the ordinary. Maybe then attendance will pick up.

But with just three home games left, it'll have to pick up soon, or the 2009 season will achieve a dubious feat.

Ideas? Comments? Topics you want to see discussed? To reach Purple Reign, please write to David Vranicar at northwestern.scout@gmail.com.

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