ROSEMONT, Ill.-By the end of last season, Northwestern had a home-court advantage at Welsh-Ryan Arena unrivaled in program history. CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz, who has called games in venues all over the nation for more than 30 years, called the regular season finale against Purdue one of the top five game environments he’s ever experienced, in any sport.
But Welsh-Ryan is undergoing a $110 million-plus renovation this year, leaving the Wildcats to play their home games this season at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill. Allstate is only about 13 miles or so west of Northwestern’s campus in Evanston, but in terms of game atmosphere, it is light years away from Welsh-Ryan.
Allstate is a cold – literally – and antiseptic place with the charm of a mausoleum. The cinderblock walls are cream colored and the seats are dark blue. It’s roughly in the shape of coffin. If Welsh-Ryan created energy for the Wildcats’ historic run to the NCAA tournament last season, Allstate is where energy that went to die.
Head coach Chris Collins, to his credit, isn’t making Allstate an issue this season. To him, it’s now their home arena, like it or not, so discussing how it might affect his team is pointless. “We don’t even talk about it,” he said after Monday night’s 75-66 win over St. Peter’s.
Players, however, can already see that they may have to spur the crowd, and not vice-versa.
“We just have to rely on one another,” said star Bryant McIntosh when asked about the lack of energy at Allstate. “We can’t look for the crowd and the student section, though we’d love to have them come to our next game (against Creighton on Wednesday night) because it’s a big one. It starts in the locker room, it starts with our guys and I think the crowd will feed from that.”
To be fair, Northwestern has only played two games in its new digs and the arena hasn’t been anywhere close to full. The Wildcats drew 6,013 fans to the season-opening win over Loyola (Md.) and 5,101 for Monday night’s victory over St. Peter’s. Those games likely wouldn’t have been sellouts at Welsh-Ryan, either. Last year’s first two home games drew very comparable numbers: 6,056 for the opener against Mississippi Valley State and 5,604 for the second against Eastern Washington.
But 6,000 and 5,000 fans look – and sound – a lot better at Welsh-Ryan, which had a capacity of just 8,117. The seats would have been about two-thirds full. At Allstate, which holds 18,500 – or more than double the Wildcats’ old home – the seats were less than one-third occupied. Monday night’s game had the look and feel of a sparsely attended insurance seminar.
Northwestern is doing what it can to create some home comfort in a place that has very little. They’ve put purple branding on scoreboards, tables and tunnels. But it still feels like the Wildcats are renters, not owners; which of course, they are. And all the purple in the world isn’t going to turn this pig’s ear into a silk purse.
Granted, Monday night’s victory over a scrappy St. Peter’s squad that wouldn’t go away was far from exciting, but there was simply no electricity in the building. The pep band seemed half the size as it usually is, and there were very few students. The biggest roar of the night was for the Connie’s Pizza giveaway, when cheerleaders gave boxes of pizza to the most animated fans.
For the most part, the loudest section of the gym was the Northwestern bench, which is always lively. Fans largely sat on their hands. The optics weren’t very good, either. Discounting the few rows devoted to the band in one corner, there was nothing but a two-tiered sea of empty blue seats behind the East basket.
This whole situation is not NU’s fault, of course. Welsh-Ryan had gone virtually untouched since the early 1980s, save for new scoreboards just a couple years ago. It’s just too bad that this had to occur in the most highly anticipated season in NU basketball history, with the Wildcats ranked No. 19 in the preseason AP poll and CBS Sports’ Clark Kellogg picking them to make the Final Four. Seniors like McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and Gavin Skelly deserved to go out better than this, but there wasn’t much NU could do about it. They needed a new arena, and they had to strike while the iron was still hot from last year’s magical ride to the Big Dance.
There is hope that things could get better soon, however. If NU turns in the kind of season it is expected to, the Wildcats could draw more fans than it ever has for home games, especially once the Big Ten season starts. Eighteen-thousand, five-hundred fans will make a lot more noise than 8,117, regardless of the acoustics of the room or charm of the décor.
Skelly says that larger crowds are on their way. He’s going to see to it personally.
“I will bring the students,” said Skelly, half-jokingly to a laughing media. How? “Promotion, I know a lot of “plugs”, guys. We’ll get the boys and everyone comes to the games. So don’t worry about it. I know the guys to talk to. Word will spread.”
It seems that Northwestern is banking on Skelly for more than just points and rebounds this season.