The Old Gym That is Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena

Paul SwaneySenior Analyst INovember 25, 2009

CHICAGO - MARCH 11:  Head coach Bill Carmody of the Northwestern Wildcats looks on against the Illinois Fighting Illini during the quaterfinals on the second day of the Big Ten Men's Conference Basketball Tournament March 11, 2005 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. Inninois won 68-51.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

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The first thing you need to know about Welsh-Ryan Arena is that it is not an arena. It’s a gym. I hope you understand that this distinction is a very good thing. You immediately feel the intimacy, and you know there is no bad seat.  This cozy home of the Northwestern Wildcats seats 8,117 and has been their home since 1952.

FANFARE Score: 21 (out of 35)

Food and Beverage: 2

Make sure you get something before you come to Welsh-Ryan as there really isn’t anything available besides snacks and soda.

Atmosphere: 4

I mentioned earlier that there is no bad seat.  Well that’s true from a viewing perspective, but there are actually a lot of bad seats. In fact, the worst part about the game is having to sit down. Welsh-Ryan is mostly filled with old school bleachers, and when you sit you’re immediately leg-to-leg with the people next to you, as well as having a knee in your back, and a back in your knee.

If you take nothing else from this review, please at least heed this piece of advice: Sit in sections 101-107 or 201-207. You’ll get an actual chair, and believe me, you’ll be glad you did. Adding to my discomfort was the elderly man sitting in front of me, who continually kept sliding off the bleacher, and deeper into my leg.

Now, that one (important) criticism aside, this was a great place to see a game. For my experience there were essentially two student sections—the Northwestern sections behind each basket, and the Illinois section up near me.

That led to an extremely charged atmosphere, made even greater as Illinois came back to steal a win from Northwestern who was tied or lead (literally) 39 minutes and 58 seconds. Demetri McCamey made a 12-foot bank shot with under two seconds to play, and the crowd erupted in my section, and sunk in the Northwestern section.

Neighborhood: 3

Prior to the game, I spent some time in beautiful downtown Evanston (about a mile or so from the gym). I began my night at Merle’s, a southwestern themed BBQ joint, where I enjoyed a half slab of Chicago style ribs, some creamy mac and cheese, and a Goose Island Honker’s Ale.

I then walked a few blocks to Tommy Nevin’s pub—which was filled with Illini fans, where I sat at the bar and tried a Rogue Yellow Snow Ale (which was a new beer for me, and very tasty). I liked Nevin’s quite a bit—good beer selection, and it felt like an authentic Irish pub, without seeming to try too hard.

Next, I made the short drive up to the Arena, making a stop at Bluestone Bar, which was completely packed. It’s remarkable that it’s the only bar within easy walking distance to Welsh-Ryan and the football stadium, Ryan Field. An entrepreneur would do well to open another establishment to handle the overflow.

I made one additional stop at Mustard’s Last Stand, for a Polish dog. Mustard’s is a small traditionally Chicago hot dog and hamburger joint with plenty of interesting local sports memorabilia and autographed photos on the wall. I would recommend each of the establishments I tried.

Fans: 3

Being a fan of a team that hosted the first NCAA tournament, yet has never participated in the big dance has got to be difficult.  That being said, the Northwestern students bring good energy, and the school does a good job of getting them down on the court behind the baskets. 

It’s unfortunate that the alumni and fans don’t fill up the rest of arena.  Instead, rival school alumni are able to take away some of the edge of the home court advantage as there are usually plenty of tickets available.

Access: 4

Street parking is plentiful around Welsh-Ryan, and with only 8,000 fans rolling out, it’s generally easy to get going after the game.  Restrooms are small so you may want to sneak out a couple of minutes before halftime.

Return on Investment: 4

With the exception of the discomfort of the seats, the experience of Welsh-Ryan is well worth the price of admission.

Etc: 1

One extra point for that old gym feel, something that makes college basketball games special.

Paul Swaney is a Co-Founder of Stadium Journey