Something outrageous happened on Jan. 4, 2023: Student seating at Welsh-Ryan Arena filled up.
It was the first men’s basketball game of Winter Quarter – against a cross-state rival, no less. The student population was fresh on campus following winter break and, apparently, they all wanted to see Northwestern take down Illinois. By the end of the night, the ’Cats had bested the Illini by 13 points, their first win against the downstate team since 2019. But not all of the students got to experience the victory in person; hundreds were turned away at the Welsh-Ryan doors.
Onsite, the reactions were a mix of upset, apathy and above all, confusion. Did more students show up than could fit in the student section? Surely not at Northwestern.
For the remainder of the 2022-23 season, students scrambled to claim basketball tickets through a survey form on the Northwestern Athletics website, a process rife with technological issues.
“I think at only one of the games, the website actually held up and didn’t crash,” Associate Director of Marketing and Fan Engagement Andrew Cass said. “It wasn’t necessarily rewarding on a first come, first served basis like we wanted.”
This year, NU Athletics has developed a new student ticket claim process in the hopes of remedying last season’s chaos. The “merit-based points system” was unveiled in an email on Sept. 18.
With the system, students will receive five points for attending women’s basketball, four for Olympic sports, three for football and non-conference men’s basketball and one for conference men’s basketball. Specific games throughout the year will also offer point boosts, the first of which was a doubling of points at the home volleyball match against Wisconsin on Sept. 22.
Those who accumulate the most points will have first dibs when claim windows open for the men’s basketball season. Similarly to last year, each game will also have a standby line for students who were unable to claim tickets.
“The ultimate goal is to reward our most passionate students who are coming to our other sporting events, supporting their peers in different ways, and rewarding them with priority when it comes to men's basketball tickets,” Cass said. He also added another objective: to ensure that students don’t travel to Welsh-Ryan from the main campus just to be turned away at the doors.
NU Athletics developed the new system with ASG’s Campus Life Committee. Stephanie Shields, chair of the committee, said she wanted to capitalize off the success of the men’s basketball team to build more community on campus.
“It felt like for once, the Northwestern student body was so united behind something.” Shields said. “I felt a much greater sense of community, and I felt a much stronger connection to Northwestern as a school.”
Shields said that promoting women’s sports was also very important to her.
“We should totally be rallying behind them just as much as we are rallying behind men's sports,” Shields said. “There are so many amazing, amazing programs at Northwestern … It's just kind of backwards in my head that so many Northwestern students can say, ‘Yeah, I've been to one football game, I've been to one basketball game, and that's it.’”
Wildside President Kayla Cohen, who was involved in focus groups with NU Athletics as the claim process was developed, echoed this sentiment.
“My main hope is that we can create some fans of other Northwestern sports, and really just be a support system for all sports,” Cohen said.
Cohen added that this goal is not just in regards to the new ticketing system, but is an overarching objective for Wildside.
The new ticketing process has generated mixed reactions from students. Some, like third-year Izzy Pareja, have attended Northwestern sports games in a nearly empty stadium. They are hopeful that this system will tackle some of the inequalities in student attendance.
“There was one time I went where it was only me and like two other friends,” Pareja said of a women’s basketball game she attended last winter. “So I like that this is going to encourage students to get out to games that are a little less watched and also for teams that may not be doing as well, but might do better with some support.”
Other students, however, are simply not interested in attending those games.
“It's not good for students who just want to watch basketball,” said third-year William Thakur, who added that he mostly attends football and men’s basketball games. “I know there are a lot of people who just want to watch basketball.”
Nevertheless, if the last few weeks are any indication, the points system has motivated many students to attend other sports. According to the Northwestern Volleyball Instagram page, there were 1,756 students in the building for the Sept. 22 match against Wisconsin, making it the largest student crowd to attend any athletic event at Welsh-Ryan.
Once basketball season rolls around, that record may be smashed once again. According to Cass, student seating for basketball will increase by 15% to 27% from last season, depending on the game.
“We're willing to continue to increase the student section and continue to give access to students, if they're continuing to show up and they're showing that consistency,” Cass said. “We absolutely haven't hit the maximum of student seats.”
The points system has been in place for just three weeks, and Cass acknowledges that there will be bumps in the road.
“This process will be ever-evolving.” Cass said. “We're going to be listening to feedback. We're going to be putting together focus groups… and seeing what works.”
Cohen emphasized the need for students to provide that feedback for improvements to be made.
“The main contribution of Wildside, and definitely ASG, is they keep coming back to Athletics and asking these very important questions to make sure there's accountability,” Cohen said. “Making them accountable for the system they're creating and implementing is extremely important.”