By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) When it comes to college football, the state of Illinois has an attendance deficit.
Here in the Land of Lincoln, we have three FBS programs in Illinois, Northwestern and Northern Illinois. The school’s home venues – Memorial Stadium (cap. 60,600), Ryan Field (47,130) and Huskie Stadium (24,000) – boast a combined 131,170 seats, but not one program can brag about filling them.
Or even coming close.
For Illinois, the problem is a lack of wins (just two this year). For Northwestern, it’s probably a lack of football aficionados (most students don’t go to NU to watch sports). And for NIU, it’s a lack of …
Well, what exactly is the reason why the 12-1 Orange Bowl-bound Huskies – who are enjoying a 21-game winning streak at home – are unable to draw big crowds?
Earlier this month, Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren left DeKalb for North Carolina State and said that his biggest regret was that the team with the nation’s longest home winning streak didn’t sell out one home game while he was on the sideline.
“We play a very good brand of football that doesn’t get watched in person enough,” Doeren told the Chicago Sun-Times a few days before taking the N.C. State job. “That’s not just here. That’s across the landscape of mid-major conferences. But to have all the streaks we have and not sell it out is probably the biggest disappointment I have.”
He’s not the only one. Among Huskies die-hards, the paltry attendance figures at NIU games have long been discussed, dissected and debated. One common explanation for the small crowds is Northern’s reputation as a “suitcase school” where many of the 22,000 students head back to the suburbs on weekends, but NIU alum and longtime football season ticket holder Mike Murphy of The Times in Ottawa, Ill., thinks the “suitcase” issue goes deeper than the school’s current crop of kids.
“A lot of students do frequently go home on weekends, but I feel the problem is with alums who did the same thing,” Murphy explained. “Undergrads who frequently went home didn’t establish the connection with the university that they would have if they stuck around.
“Many used NIU as a means to an end – getting an education and leaving it at that. Once they graduate and get on with their lives, they lose touch with NIU. And ‘suitcase students’ who had little connection with the school as undergrads get further out of touch once they enter the real world.”
Another problematic issue for NIU is the school’s small surrounding population base. The communities of DeKalb and Sycamore have only about 61,100 combined residents.
“NIU’s base extends to Rockford, St. Charles, Geneva, the Kaneland area, Aurora and Naperville, but it still needs more support,” Murphy said. “An NIU game is a day trip for the vast majority of alumni. No excuse why some of them can’t make it to one game a year.”
Yet many don’t, and a reason for that is likely the Mid-American Conference’s penchant for regularly shucking traditional Saturday afternoon games in favor of ESPN-televised games on weeknights. That arrangement is good for TV revenue, but perhaps not so good for fans – including those of Northern Illinois.
As an example, prior to the Huskies’ nationally televised Wednesday night game against Toledo in November, retired NIU sports information director Mike Korcek wrote in a column for the DeKalb Daily Chronicel, “If you live in Naperville and come to the NIU-UT game, you’ll probably get home about 1 a.m. Short night for work or school the next day. If you’re a Heisman Trophy voter on the East coast wanting to see Northern Illinois junior quarterback Jordan Lynch do his thing on TV, I hope you can stay up well past 11 p.m.”
Andy Tavegia, the sports editor of The Times in Ottawa and a Northern Illinois alum, said this week, “I’m a big opponent of the weekday games. It kills the atmosphere and kills attendance. I understand why it exists since ESPN pays the league a ton of money for the broadcast rights, but take a look at the attendance numbers for late-season MAC games. They are awful.
“Now, go back to 2002 and 2003. (NIU) had late-season games against nationally ranked Bowling Green and Toledo both on Saturday afternoons. Bowling Green drew just under 26,000 and Toledo drew about 24,000 [when Huskie Stadium had a capacity of 28,000]. In 2003 and 2004, NIU averaged over 23,500 fans per game with four sellouts in 2004 and another game of 24,000-plus.”
Tavegia also added that, “I think the history of the program hurts a little bit. Historically, NIU football just hasn’t been good. The university went through years of alumni who didn’t have a reason to care about Huskie football.”
So, can NIU transform its winning ways at home into something that draws more fans? What is the solution to the small crowds?
“Keep winning, especially at home,” Murphy said. “The Huskies have the longest home winning streak in the country, and that should be emphasized – we do not lose at home. The team has (standout quarterback Jordan) Lynch and many other top players returning next year. An Orange Bowl win and a preseason Top 25 ranking would help attendance in 2013.”
Tavegia, meanwhile, said the Huskies should, “Avoid games like Tennessee-Martin or Tennessee Tech or Cal Poly. I have no idea why games like this are scheduled. It’s pretty much a necessity that MAC teams have to schedule games against FCS schools. Make it a drawing game. Make it ISU, SIU, WIU or EIU. I’ve seen some really big crowds for the in-state games.”
Tavegia also urged his alma mater to try to schedule a home-and-home series with Northwestern and to “Make football a Saturday event again.” However, he acknowledged about the weeknight games, “I believe this is a dream, though. The money coming in from ESPN is too great to pass up. But I would love to see football back on Saturdays all the time [in DeKalb]. People attend college football for the atmosphere, and there isn’t anything better than tailgating during the day.”
Lastly, Murphy stressed, “Never say that NIU fans are bad fans. On the contrary, they’re great. But there just aren’t enough of them.”
Perhaps, following the Orange Bowl, there will be more of them come 2013.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.