Northern Illinois University athletic officials are working to spruce up the Convocation Center in hopes of luring a naming rights partner, and while that’s a start, they also need more events to draw crowds there.
NIU is using $1.1 million worth of the center’s reserve funds on a new video scoreboard that should be ready at the start of basketball season. They’re also planning new end-wall displays that can show live video, instant replays, and of course, sponsor messages and logos.
That’s a start. But what about the attendance at the venue? The men’s and women’s basketball teams, the two major tenants at the arena, have had only one winning season in their past 10. In 2017, NCAA statistics show the men’s team drew 21,229 fans total in 17 games – an average of 1,250 a game.
They need to play better if they want to draw better. It can be done: Although the football program has had a great decade, but in the 1990s, the team went two years between wins.
The Convocation Center is a great facility, and if there were more events there, more people would know it. NIU has had great success with its “Destination DeKalb” branding for the IHSA state football championships at Huskie Stadium, but the Convo doesn’t host any state championship events – yet. An attempt to lure wrestling, boys or girls basketball, or volleyball or another state championship event could help, too.
Declining enrollment at NIU has left the athletic program short of cash. Students contribute more than a third of the athletic program’s operating budget through an athletic fee, which will be $790 ($395 a semester) for full-time undergrads next school year. The program’s $25.8 million in revenue in 2016-17 ranked 11th out of 12 schools in the Mid-American Conference.
This year, a Saturday football game scheduled for Sept. 22 against Idaho in DeKalb was cancelled in favor of an Orange Bowl rematch against Florida State. The reason: Florida State agreed to pay NIU $1.6 million to make the trip. Losing a home Saturday NIU football game hurts the local economy.
Maybe with an extra $1 million or so a year, NIU doesn’t have to make that choice. Maybe a revitalized Convocation Center can draw events and athletes people want to see.
That would be a positive development for everyone.