It was about half an hour to game time, and the old wooden bleachers were beginning to fill. This was a good sign, as a full student section is a precious rarity in Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena.
However, as a Big Ten Network cameraman attempted to film the necessary b-roll footage of screaming fans, it was nearly impossible for him to get a group of students on its feet and cheering, even for television cameras.
Fast forward to midway through the second half. Senior forward John Shurna makes a play on the ball to force a turnover and, after a feed from junior guard Reggie Hearn, slams home a mighty jam.
Welsh-Ryan has never been louder.
After disappointing and disheartening losses to Illinois and Michigan, Northwestern basketball took a huge step toward becoming a legitimate basketball community with its 81-74 home win against the seventh-ranked Michigan State Spartans, and it was only in part due to the on-court performance.
The fans, the atmosphere, the visuals and the decibel level in Welsh-Ryan were the game’s true victors. The praise goes to the Wildside, the Northwestern athletic department and the core of dedicated fans.
The Wildside is a student group that was started last year to organize the fan section. Since its inception, it has promoted games, organized pep-rally type events and coordinated incentives and giveaways to fill the student section.
The arena is always rocking when Illinois, Michigan State or highly ranked opponents such as Ohio State come to town, so with Michigan State on the docket, the Wildside and the athletic department went all out to fill the crowd.
The Wildside gave out 1500 black Northwestern T-shirts to achieve a “blackout” in conjunction with the team wearing special black home jerseys. The student group also ran a competition in which the Greek organization with the best fan representation won $500.
Its latest initiative is to find a core group of students who will lead the fan section in cheers and general enthusiasm. This comes as a response to a fan who posted a video of Duke’s Cameron Crazies on the Wildside’s Facebook page and asked why Northwestern fans were not as dedicated.
From the university’s side, the athletic department has been investing heavily in marketing in an attempt to build excitement. Since Morton “Morty” Schapiro took over as university president in 2009, the athletic department has had the ability to be more aggressive in certain areas of spending, including public relations.
The “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” campaign is still young, but has gone past Evanston to billboards around the Chicagoland area and has featured advertisements in publications such as Sports Illustrated.
Athletic department spending reached out to individual sports with the PersaStrong campaign for football, and the marching band and spirit squad are now funded with athletic department money. The Michigan State game even featured brand new uniforms for the basketball band.
How likely is Northwestern to make the NCAA Tournament?
Positive results are already being seen around the department, with massive increases in attendance at football games and season tickets being sold for the first time for the successful women’s lacrosse program.
There is the possibility of a bright future in Northwestern athletics and especially fan participation. This climate set the stage for the loyal fans to spark a great night in Northwestern basketball history.
The band that never even thinks of sitting during game play, the alumnus who always sits in the first row and jumps onto the court with excitement during intense games, and the hardhat wearing, purple covered student who never misses a home basketball game—men’s or women’s— are the core group that lit up Welsh-Ryan.
The cameraman did not to need fake b-roll from before the game. He needed to keep filming after the final buzzer when the fans stormed the court to celebrate with their team.
The new court, courtesy of more funding, was covered with a jubilant crowd donning black and purple. Somewhere in the crowd there was even a Serbian flag waving for senior center Luka Mirkovic.
As the court emptied after the playing of the Alma Mater, Welsh-Ryan finished watching one of the greatest performances ever by Northwestern basketball fans. Now, the question is how to grab that momentum and ride it into the fabled NCAA tournament.