A state-of-the-art football stadium is coming to Evanston, pending approval from the city.
But a promised state-of-the-art game-day experience, let alone winning Northwestern football teams to go with it? We’d all be wise to wait and see on those fronts.
A massive project involving the demolition of Ryan Field after the 2023 season and the construction of a new, privately funded stadium at the same site — to be completed in time for the start of the 2026 season — was approved last week by the university’s board of trustees. Crain’s estimated the cost of the project at $800 million.
That’s a hefty price tag for what’s planned as a 35,000-seat venue — down from Ryan Field’s current 47,000-plus, already the lowest seating capacity in the Big Ten — but there’s big-time ambition behind what the school describes as a “world-class home” that will deliver a “best-in-the-nation experience” for fans and players.
The new Ryan Field would be the third-smallest Power Five stadium based on current capacities — exceeding only those at Duke and Wake Forest — and would, according to Northwestern, be the first Power Five stadium built without public money this century. Namesakes Patrick and Shirley Ryan and family donated $480 million to the school last year as part of a fundraising campaign that raised $6.1 billion.
“I have no doubt that the privately funded stadium will be a game-changer for our football program, athletics department and the community,” athletic director Derrick Gragg said in an official statement.
But there are several key questions, chief among them: Could there be a stadium swanky enough to make Northwestern football fans out of sports fans in the area who have demonstrated clearly to this point that they just aren’t interested?
The Big Ten has three stadiums (at Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State) that seat over 100,000. It has two others (at Nebraska and Wisconsin) in the 80,000s and three others (at Michigan State, Iowa and Illinois) above 60,000. Ryan Field is the only stadium in the league with fewer than 50,000 seats, and still it’s routinely emptier than most of the others. And the more full it is, the reason, without fail, is there are more fans who traveled to cheer on the visiting school.
The artist’s renderings of the new stadium sent out by the school portray, of course, a full-house crowd that’s a beautiful ocean of purple. In reality, it’s probably never going to look close to that.
Also, where will the Wildcats play “home” games in 2024 and 2025? According to a university source, any stadium that can accommodate 20,000 fans could be considered. Soldier Field is an obvious possibility, but there are never-ending problems with the grass field there — hadn’t you heard? — that make the idea of Saturday and Sunday games there throughout the season almost laughable based on what we know now.
Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field have teams that play in September, though potentially not very much at all in October. SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview? A game at Northern Illinois here, one at Notre Dame there? It’s all speculation.
Some pluses: The new stadium design will bring fans closer to the field, a tight, yet apparently quite comfortable (seatbacks for everyone!) squeeze that should help fans engage more with the action. Also, the stadium and stadium campus will host concerts, plays, seasonal festivals, holiday events, movie nights and other nice things.
Then again, Evanston is a funny place when it comes to football, crowds, traffic, noise and the like. In many college towns, the chaos of football Saturdays is expected and embraced. Folks in lovely Evanston tend not to be as enthusiastic about the inconveniences therein. Thus, Northwestern is taking pains to “address public concerns” as part of the rollout of its plan.
For example, the school is touting a “landscaping buffer and a state-of-the-art stadium canopy” to “reduce the impacts of noise and light on the neighborhood.”
Reduce the noise? Dim the lights? Really?
That doesn’t sound like big-time college football at all.