In 1939, the first ever NCAA Basketball Tournament was held on the campus of Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois. The tournament was held in Patten Gymnasium, which is no longer standing. While that certainly gives Northwestern a piece of NCAA Tourney history, there is little else to boast about in that regard. The basketball team has NEVER earned a berth into what is now known as "The Big Dance," and has not won a share of the Big Ten title since 1933.
Welsh-Ryan Arena is an old barn of a gym, and the second oldest arena in the Big Ten Conference. What it lacks in comfort and amenities, it makes up for with charm. This is a great old gym, and well worth a trip to see a game.
The arena is located right next to Ryan Field, home of the Northwestern Wildcats football team.
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There are very few interesting options to eat or drink at Welsh-Ryan Arena, and with narrow concourses, the lines can be difficult to manage (or even walk around) during peak times like halftime. They have pretty decent Polish sausages ($4), and also offer staples like hot dogs ($3), Cracker Jack ($4), and nachos ($4).
If you want to eat like a Chicagoan, you may go for an Italian Beef sandwich found in the lower concourse ($6). I tried the BBQ pulled pork sandwich from Hecky’s ($5), which was decent. They also serve pulled chicken and chicken wings.
To drink, you’ll find Coca-Cola products ($4 or $5), or bottled water ($3.50).
There is something about Chicago loving its losers as much if not more than its winners. The Cubs are the obvious example, but the Northwestern basketball team fits nicely into that generalization as well. You can expect a full house when you go to a game at Welsh-Ryan Arena, especially during the Big Ten season.
One consideration at Welsh-Ryan Arena that is more important than in most arenas is where you choose your seats. On one side of the arena (sections 109/209-115/215) there are some of the most uncomfortable wooden bleachers that you will find. They are cramped closely together with very little room between rows. You can expect to have a set of knees in your back, and your own knees planted in the back in front of you. Also, if you get too high, your view of the scoreboard or the floor may be obstructed by the many banners hanging commemorating the successes of the various athletic teams.
This is one arena where investing in the better seats is a wise decision. If you can find and afford lower level seats, then anything in sections 101-107 will be purple padded seats with chairbacks and above average leg room. If you sit in the upper section, then a seat in sections 203, 204, or 205 would be ideal. If you only take one thing away from this review, take this seating information and heed the advice.
The scoreboard hangs over center court and is rather basic, displaying the players on the floor with their points scored and fouls. There is a dot matrix display, but no video replay. The scorer’s table has added a ribbon board display in recent years, and there will be some graphics here, but mostly advertisements.
The best part of the experience at Welsh-Ryan Arena is the overall intimacy of the venue. The place just feels like college basketball, which about as high a complement as I can pay.
Mustard’s Last Stand is a typical Chicago Vienne Beef stand serving up hot dogs and hamburgers, and is a favorite of many visiting sports teams. If the line isn’t too long, I would definitely recommend a stop into Mustard’s Last Stand for a Chicago Style dog and some fries. The memorabilia on the walls helps to set the perfect tone.
Downtown Evanston is a great little area, and is filled with several restaurants and bars that I can recommend. Merle’s BBQ (for really delicious BBQ) and Tommy Nevin’s Pub (good sports vibe and beer selection) are both favorites of mine.
If you are staying in Evanston, and want to avoid the huge prices of the hotels in downtown Chicago, then I would recommend the Hilton Garden Inn (although still fairly expensive, but less so compared to Chicago rates), which is just across from the large movie theatre on Maple Avenue.
One disadvantage that Northwestern has when it comes to its fans is that there are so many alumni from Big Ten schools that live in the Chicago area, that there is almost always a good sized faction supporting the opponents. Even so, the Northwestern faithful come out in good numbers to support their team, and they can certainly be LOUD. The students sit behind each basket, with the larger and more ardent group being near the opponent’s bench.
Northwestern is known for being a strong academic institution, but the student section has more than just book smarts, their basketball IQ is also high. This was evidenced by the groans heard when a Wildcat player missed a cutter in Bill Carmody’s offense, or a perceived no call on an over-the-back violation. There are nuances noticed by the crowd that go un-noticed at other venues.
During the game attended on February 18, 2012, John Shurna became the all-time leading scorer at Northwestern, and the crowd was moved to a standing ovation before any announcement was made. Great show of awareness and caused a real goose bump moment.
This is a common flaw for an older arena, but it is certainly difficult to get around inside this arena. Restrooms and concession stands will likely see lines. Additionally, the $15 price tag for parking was rather high compared to other venues in the Big Ten.
You can find street parking along Central Street if you are willing to walk between a Ľ mile and a ˝ mile. Another option is to take the Purple line train and get off at the Central stop. From there your walk is a little less than a mile.
Reserved seats start at $30. Those are for those seats in the upper section, which I don’t recommend. If you are shooting for a seat in section 204 or so, it will likely be purchased through a second hand reseller, like ScoreBig.
The parking is too expensive, and I think the seats are as well. The concessions are pretty standard as far as pricing, but there’s not much there. Overall, a trip to Welsh-Ryan Arena is a little overpriced. That doesn’t however prevent me from recommending that you visit if you can.
One extra point for the moving tradition of having the crowd sing the National Anthem. It is a great sign of unity and a wonderful way to start your experience.
Another extra point for the crowd and their recognition of the important milestone that I was lucky enough to witness, John Shurna becoming Northwestern’s all-time leading scorer. It is always great when a fan base appreciates those people who have made significant contributions to a program. It is also a good reminder why you never know what will happen when you go to a live sporting event.
Finally, perhaps the best thing about Welsh-Ryan Arena is that it is a great place to see your team play, whether that is the Northwestern Wildcats or one of the other Big Ten teams.
Northwestern is the best college basketball experience that you will find in the Chicago area. If you love college basketball, then you will enjoy a trip to Evanston and Welsh-Ryan Arena.
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
In Evanston Illinois, A cozy little suburb of Chicago you will find Welsh-Ryan Arena home of Northwestern Wildcat Basketball, Volleyball, and Wrestling teams.
Having only been to Welsh-Ryan for the Big Ten Conference Wrestling Championships I can't really speak for basketball but over the course of the 2 day event I feel I got a pretty good feel for the place. Consisting of a lower level, mezzanine section and upper section Welsh-Ryan Arena will really give an intimate and up close feel for the game. Not being a huge arena there is really no bad seat, but I would strongly recommend paying a few extra bucks for a chair back seat. The bleachers are very old and there is not a whole lot of room on any side. For a relatively small university Northwestern fans really come out in numbers to support their Wildcats and are very much into the game. As far as concessions go there is nothing unique except for a few ice cream specialties but the most of the items are overpriced compared to other arenas. So I would recommend taking a ten minute drive downtown to eat. However they do have souvenir cups which I think are always an inexpensive keepsake from the trip. Parking is an issue being surrounded by campus buildings there are only 2 lots so you might want to be prepared for a walk or come early to find a decent place. For a team that hosted the first NCAA Basketball Tournament it must be extremely frustrating to have never been in it. Due to the location of Northwestern many Big Ten schools will have a good showing at Welsh-Ryan for away games. Another problem is finding bathrooms. There are not very many in the arena I think only 2 on each side in the lower part and one on each side in the mezzanine level so I would suggest going before half-time or being prepared for a wait. They have a 4 sided center hung scoreboard with display and a scoreboard on the wall on either side of the arena. It really is a neat and historical arena in a beautiful old town on the campus of a prestigious university and should be on the bucket list of any Big Ten or NCAA basketball fan.
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