Since 2010, only three Football Bowl Subdivision programs have won more games than Northern Illinois – Oregon, Alabama and Florida State.
Despite being mentioned in the same breath as three of the most dominating programs in the country, the Huskies saw their home attendance drop by more than 7,100 fans a game in 2014, a year that featured a Mid-American Conference championship. While it’s far from an exclusive problem to Northern Illinois – attendance for college football as a whole dipped to the lowest in 14 years, according to CBSSports.com – the Huskies attendance dropped 34 percent, the third harshest fall in FBS behind Akron (49 percent) and Ball State (38 percent).
“You have to figure it out and you have to have energy behind it,” Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier said. “I can’t sit in a fetal position and say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is happening.’ The good thing is there are people who have (attendance) problems and they aren’t winning.”
The highest attendance for a game, which comes from people entering the stadium, not the number of tickets sold, in the 2014 season – 20,122 against Central Michigan – was still less than the third-highest total in 2013.
Earlier this month, Northern Illinois hit the road for a four-day, four-city tour of the surrounding areas – Rockford, Chicago, Aurora and Schaumburg – to reach out to the alumni living outside of DeKalb. The Huskie Summer Circuit was a chance for Frazier and all of the NIU coaches to build excitement in the area, which could help boost attendance.
“Our students play a high-level brand of football and that’s what you need to do,” NIU football coach Rod Carey said. “That’s the most important ingredient to filling a stadium. The other important ingredient is marketing yourself and getting yourself out and that’s what this about. You just keep working at it.”
As of earlier this month, the Huskies had a season ticket renewal rate of 70 percent, with about 3,000 fans signed up so far and the goal being to get that bumped up closer to 5,000. While Northern Illinois has now offered more options for season tickets, general admission season tickets on the east side of the stadium have gone from $100 (2014) to $122 (2015). Single game tickets become available in August.
There are likely several causes for the dip in attendance during the 2014 season – some of which Frazier and Northern Illinois can do something about and others they can’t.
A closer look at the issues:
The numbers show that the mid-week games, which come later in the season when the temperatures are dropping fast, are seeing a dip.
In the Huskies’ only home weekday game of 2014, the attendance was a season-low 8,462 in a narrow win over Toledo. However, with the MAC-ESPN contract good through the 2026-27 season, those mid-week games are likely not going away.
“It’s going to be harder for people to get out and you understand that, but you don’t have a choice in it,” Carey said. “I think it’s good all around – people go to the weekday games and you get the exposure.”
In 2013, the two lowest attendance figures came against Ball State and Western Michigan, which were the two weekday games.
“The ESPN thing is a MAC deal, but we totally support it,” Frazier said. “It gives us a platform that no other institution that no other conference has. We got everyone’s attention. That market share is on us. The challenge is getting butts in the seats.”
JORDAN LYNCH FACTOR
In 2009, the Huskies drew an average of 14,889 fans and steadily increased to 18,903 in 2011. A year later, which happened to be Northern Illinois legend Jordan Lynch’s junior season, it spiked up to 20,877. His senior year, which ended with him in New York as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, it stayed steady at 20,669 and sold out two home games.
Last season, despite the Huskies winning the conference, the Lynch-less team drew an average of 13,563.
“You have a Heisman trophy finalist – I think that’s common sense,” Carey said. “Everybody knew who Jordan was and wanted to see him play.”
COMFORT OF HOME
While the contract with ESPN gives the MAC schools better exposure, it also makes it easier – and more comfortable – for fans to simply watch from home.
“We have to compete on a daily basis with people with leather chairs and 70-inch hi-definition TVs,” Northern Illinois associate athletic director Ryan Sedevie said. “You have to make them feel like they’re missing something. It has to be an atmosphere that they enjoy coming to.”
For Frazier, the problem becomes how to overcome a fan’s ability to enjoy the game at home instead of bracing the cold weather that comes at Huskie Stadium and the rest of the Midwest.
“When you have the ability to be at home on a 65-inch flat screen TV, you got your favorite beverage next to you, there’s no crowd, there’s no weather – that looks pretty comfortable. What we have to do is increase the number of amenities to attract that experience.
“I haven’t mastered changing the weather yet. I can’t control that. As my dad would tell me, you have to control what you can control. What I can control is the overall experience and I can make it fun.”
While there is little Frazier can do right now about the MAC’s contract with ESPN and the cold Illinois weather, there are still positives that the Huskies have facing the problem of a downturn in attendance.
Most importantly, the product on the field has been strong.
Since 2010, the Huskies have been 57-13 – which gives them more wins than programs like Ohio State (56), Boise State (55) and Stanford (54). There are schools around the nation that saw a downturn in attendance that have a hard enough time fighting for enough wins, while the Huskies have rattled off five straight seasons with at least 11 wins.
With sustained success, it also opens the door to a stronger, more compelling schedule. The only non-conference home game last year came against Presbyterian (Big South Conference), which also played games at North Carolina State and Ole Miss – losing by a combined score of 145-3 in the three games.
The attendance for the Huskies’ game – a season opener – against Presbyterian was 12,398.
Frazier points to upcoming seasons that will bring Boston College (ACC), Utah (Pac-12), Vanderbilt (SEC), Maryland (Big Ten) to Huskie Stadium. Even road games – like this season against defending national champion Ohio State in a game that will be featured on ABC – has the potential to build interest that could boost home attendance, Frazier said.
“It’s infectious. It’s the only way it moves the needle,” Frazier said. “It shows the national media, the regional media that we know how to act. We know how to win because we’ve won a lot. To keep this thing going, you have to continue to feed the beast and be extremely supportive and be proud.”
Secondly, it appears that Frazier isn’t afraid to attack the problem head on.
“You have to have these candid conversations,” Frazier said before the Huskie Summer Circuit event in Schaumburg. “What do I got to do?”
He said he sent out 121,000 surveys to fans and alumni with questions on how to improve the gameday experience. He got 4,200 back – which gave him something to work off, particularly when it came to amenities at Huskie Stadium.
“Concessions, bathrooms, how do you treat the customers?” Frazier said. “Now we have a plan. Let’s start creating some things to do that and that’s what we’ve done.”
While he said he still has some things up his sleeve he wasn’t ready to announce, he pointed to “The Yard,” a place outside the stadium for tailgating with music and a large TV screen. The comfort of home is certainly compelling, which Frazier himself admits, so instead the focus is to create an experience that can’t be emulated on a leather recliner.
“If I can get them in there, they’ll get the whole experience and then they’ll come back,” Frazier said. “I just got to get them in there.”
Northern Illinois also carries the stigma of being a “suitcase college,” where many of the students simply go back home on the weekend. Sedevie said in 2014 there was a dip in attendance for both students and the general public. Getting fans when they’re still young – as in students at the college – is important to getting them to come back to games when they become alumni.
“It’s a blessing and a curse,” Frazier said. “You have 137,000 living alums in Chicagoland and maybe part of the reason why (they chose to attend NIU) was it was within two hours of where they lived. They could go to school and on the weekends, go back to their communities.”
This season is the 50th anniversary of Huskie Stadium, which is sure to bring plenty of festivities on game day. Also, the Huskies used resurfacing Brigham Field as a chance to unveil a new design – which got plenty of attention from fans on social media.
When Frazier was talking about ways to boost the attendance during the Huskie Summer Circuit event, he brought up a moment he remembered in 2013 – while he was still at the University of Wisconsin. It was a moment, he said, that inspired hope that the Huskies have the capabilities to fill Huskie Stadium on gameday.
“You saw in the Orange Bowl – I turned on the TV and it was red and black,” Frazier said. “It was clear that alumni base was fired up to go to the Orange Bowl and play Florida State. I saw the potential. It’s there. It just has to be activated.”
NIU attendance figures past 10 years
Sept. 17 Tennessee Tech 26,123
Oct. 5 Miami 20,023
Oct. 15 Eastern Michigan* 27,641
Oct. 29 Ball State 18,732
Nov. 23 Western Michigan 18,361
Sept. 9 Ohio 19,341
Sept. 16 Buffalo 21,117
Sept. 23 Indiana State 19,720
Oct. 21 Temple* 27,039
Nov. 7 Toledo 19,267
Nov. 17 Central Michigan 18,139
Sept. 8 Southern Illinois 24,182
Sept. 15 Eastern Michigan 20,012
Oct. 13 Western Michigan* 23,057
Nov. 10 Kent State 13,831
Nov. 24 Ball State 8,237
Sept. 20 Indiana State 20,936
Oct. 11 Miami 17,444
Oct. 18 Toledo* 22,092
Oct. 25 Bowling Green 17,163
Nov. 12 Central Michigan 13,543
Nov. 25 Navy 17,932
Sept. 12 Western Illinois 21,427
Sept. 26 Idaho 16,320
Oct. 3 Western Michigan* 17,608
Oct. 31 Akron 10,148
Nov. 5 Eastern Michigan 10,527
Nov. 12 Ball State 13,305
Sept. 11 North Dakota 18,046
Oct. 9 Temple 14,011
Oct. 16 Buffalo* 21,230
Oct. 23 Central Michigan 17,042
Nov. 9 Toledo 18,472
Sept. 3 Army 17,003
Sept. 24 Cal Poly 14,321
Oct. 8 Kent State 14,251
Oct. 15 Western Michigan* 20,277
Nov. 15 Ball State 12,391
Nov. 25 Eastern Michigan 13,012
Sept. 8 UT Martin 16,010
Sept. 22 Kansas 18,374
Sept. 29 Central Michigan 16,292
Oct. 13 Buffalo* 14,419
Nov. 3 UMass 11,114
Nov. 14 Toledo 17,813
Sept. 21 Eastern Illinois 23,595
Oct. 12 Akron* 23,595
Oct. 26 Eastern Michigan 20,185
Nov. 13 Ball State 18,290
Nov. 26 Western Michigan 17,679
Aug 28 Presbyterian 12,398
Oct. 4 Kent State 15,620
Oct. 11 Central Michigan* 20,122
Oct. 18 Miami 11,211
Nov. 11 Toledo 8,462
10-year average: 17,503
* – homecoming