In 2009, home games at Ryan Field attracted, on average, 24,190 people. This year, that number’s up to 37,560. And, with Michigan and Michigan State coming to town later this year, that number will surely go up.
After reaching a bowl game the last five years – and finally winning one last year – fans are reacting. As more people fill the stadium, there’s more purple and noise in the stadium and around Evanston. In college football, the gameday atmosphere provides more than just a homefield advantage; it’s intimately related to a school’s ability to recruit, so the recent uptick in attendance is certainly good for the Cats.
But perhaps the most significant impact of having those extra thousands of people have is a little less obvious. Businesses all over Evanston are feeling the benefit of the increased attendance at the football games that stems from the gridiron success.
“Does it help us maybe fill a little quicker?” said Michael McGuigan, the Hilton Orrington’s General Manager. “I’m sure it does. Having a good team, I mean it does because people are charged up about it. If you’re two and ten, there’s not a whole lot of emotion behind the stays and stuff like that. I think the bigger impact, though, is to the town itself. The restaurants, the bars, the cabs, that type of thing.”
And those industries are definitely feeling the effect.
“We definitely see weekends are busier,” Lead Visual Merchandizer at the Gap Charlotte Speranza said. “People are walking around more, coming in for the game. I would say there has been an increase just in sales over the weekends. If you look at the weekends in the past few years, it’s gotten busier for this year.”
For the Ohio State game Oct. 5, however, there were more than just a few people walking around Evanston. Sports bars all over the city were packed all day in anticipation for the game. The World of Beer sports bar was no exception.
“The sales for the Ohio State game were more than double what they normally were,” Production Manager Zach Smith said. “…It was at capacity by like 12:30 in the afternoon, and we were at capacity all day long. It was definitely a huge draw for us.”
Adding onto the fact that both teams were undefeated at that point, College GameDay drew even more people. According to McGuigan, GameDay appealed to a demographic other than Ohio State fans and Northwestern fans and alumni.
“It drew people in from the surrounding suburbs, yes,” McGuigan said. “That’s an economic boom. Because you did have people coming in from the suburbs in Chicago, absolutely.”
Though the team has lost its last three games, businesses have not seen a significant decrease in sales. Part of this is because the Minnesota game coincided with parent’s weekend, so many restaurants and shops had booming sales that weekend.
“Just this past week was our busiest week ever in the four months since we opened,” Owner of the Farmhouse restaurant TJ Callahan said. “But I think that had a lot more to do with parent’s weekend than it had to do with the fact Minnesota was here.”
On typical football weekends – ones that are not special occasions like parent’s weekend – Northwestern’s opponent actually has the more significant impact, especially for McGuigan and the hotel industry.
“Typically, this hotel would fill anyway, because of its location for those big games,” he said.
Callahan shares this sentiment.
“What has had a big impact for us is the caliber and the quality of the football team that Northwestern is playing,” he said. “It matters less to us whether Northwestern wins or loses, but who they are playing.”
In addition to just the Wildcats’ opponent, other factors significantly contribute to sales in Evanston.
“It’s very hard to isolate the various things that impact my business,” Callahan said. “How much of it can I say is Northwestern winning the game versus it’s a beautiful night out versus it’s not cold and raining like it has the last week and a half, and now it’s a gorgeous day.”
As those other factors affect the short-term week-to-week sales, long-term figures are impacted by the rising attendance, which stems from prolonged success on the field. After five consecutive bowl appearances and an average attendance that is in position to eclipse last year’s, Northwestern football helps drive the local economy.
“That’s the biggest aspect if they are successful: everybody is wearing a Northwestern jersey,” McGuigan said. “The change in that too is how Northwestern markets its athletics. It’s changing, when you’ve got billboards up, you’ve got the whole ‘Chicago’s Big Ten Team’ campaign going. So that’s all changed, but it all ties in with success too. Success breeds success.”
Photo Credit: Ryan Dickey