To those not close to Northwestern University, it has a reputation for a few different things. For many it is simply the school that ESPN personality Mike Wilbon of "Pardon the Interruption" went to. For others it is that school where some of the athletes are attempting to form a union for student athletes. For many, Northwestern is the only BCS school that has never been to the NCAA Tournament. If you step back and think about it, Northwestern is really a little fish in a really big pond.
Northwestern is part of the Big Ten Conference, one of the oldest, richest and most prestigious athletic conferences in the NCAA. They are a charter member of the conference which was established in 1896. With an enrollment of almost 15,000 students, Northwestern is by far the smallest school in the Big Ten. With a capacity of just over 8,000, Welsh-Ryan Arena is the smallest basketball facility in the Big Ten (at least until Rutgers joins later in 2014-2015). Knowing the amount of money and influence that the Big Ten wields, it is clear that Northwestern is an underdog in this conference, especially in "revenue" sports like football and basketball.
Originally known as McGaw Memorial Hall when it opened in 1952, Welsh-Ryan Arena was renamed in 1983 after it was renovated. The arena was named after Patrick Ryan and Robert Welsh Sr., who were the principal donors for the renovations. The outside of the arena still features the name McGaw Memorial Hall.
At the corner of Wildcat Ally and Walker Way, you may not find a program with a long history of success, but you will find a great experience in a classic arena that is worth your time, despite what the numbers may show.
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The concession selections at Welsh-Ryan Arena are a little better than average. The usual suspects are present for prices that are to be expected (pizza $6.50; hot dogs $3; popcorn $4; soda $5). Coca-Cola soft drinks are the soda products that are available, and there are no alcohol sales in the arena. There are also a few items that may pique your interest. You can also find Polish sausages, Cracker Jack, nachos, Italian beef sandwiches, Dippin' Dots, and even Chili. If you are hungry you will do okay at Welsh-Ryan, but you won't be blown away.
To put it bluntly, Welsh-Ryan Arena is an old barn. The architecture on the outside is fairly grand, with the building featuring both the McGaw and Welsh-Ryan name and ivy on the walls. It is also very close to the Northwestern Campus, so you have that college feeling before you even enter the building. Ryan Field, home of the Northwestern football program is right next door. Upon entering the arena, there is a very small concourse, which looks to have been a part of the renovations. There is a table and few racks where you can buy your Wildcats merchandise, but there is not a ton of space to move, so you won't want to shop for too long.
Entering the seating bowl you will immediately get a sense of the age and history of the building. It almost feels like the Palestra of Pennsylvania University in that they share the same rounded, barn-like structure and simple seating.
Upon selecting your seating, make sure you do your research and choose wisely. With the low capacity of Welsh-Ryan Arena, they have filled every possible piece of real estate with some sort of seat or bench. Some of these seats do not offer a great view. The seats in the 100 north, east and west sides as well as the north side 200 seats are all wooden benches. Although the chairback seats are older and do not offer a ton of legroom, they are well worth the extra money. During the game, fans are regaled with the Northwestern pep band and messages on the old-school dot matrix scoreboard.
Mustard's Last Stand is a typical Chicago Vienna 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.
Attendance at Northwestern games are a bit up and down. For most non conference games the attendance is between 5,000-6,000. A capacity crowd can be found for many conference games, especially if the Wildcats are playing Illinois or Wisconsin. The crowd was a just under 7,000 for the game being reviewed against conference rival Minnesota. The student section has some life, but by no means should they be compared to some of the better student sections in the country. It must be noted that Northwestern Athletics does compete with a ton of sporting options in nearby Chicago.
Getting to Evanston and Welsh-Ryan Arena is not a problem. Evanston is located just north of Chicago, and a nice drive along Lake Michigan can be had if you are heading north from the big city. Evanston is a fair distance from I-94 and Highway 41, so be prepared to travel through town if you are going by car.
Public transit is also an option, taking the Purple line train and getting off at the Central stop. From there your walk is a little less than a mile.
There is sufficient parking around the arena for a price, and you can look for parking on the street also.
Inside Welsh-Ryan Arena, you will definitely find it challenging to get around. The concourses are very snug and there is not much room in the main entrance. There seems to be only two main washrooms with the men's on the west side and the women's on the east. Washrooms are really tight, so be prepared to wait.
Northwestern basketball can be lots of fun. The ambiance is neat and Big Ten basketball is among the best in the country. Ticket prices for the Wildcats are decent especially if you shop around and consider the secondary market. My seats which were in the padded seat section were found for $20 a piece on the secondary market. Concession prices are what is expected and parking prices are not terrible. Unfortunately, Northwestern basketball is typically at the bottom end of the division, so choose the opponent for the Wildcats wisely.
An extra mark for the use of the dot matrix board. When welcoming groups, the cheeky folks behind the board made sure to welcome such groups as "anyone who was in a band in high school" and "the left-handed."
An extra mark for the pep band, which is one of the best bands that I have heard, playing a very modern and widespread playlist.
An extra mark for Northwestern welcoming back basketball Alumni at halftime.
An extra mark for the Northwestern mascot, Willie the Wildcat.
Going to see the Northwestern Wildcats is a lot of fun. If you are in the Chicago area and decide to see the Wildcats, step back and think for a moment. This school is competing with schools that are much larger than they are, in arenas that are much larger than theirs. Still, the Wildcats give it that old college try, even if they are the little fish in the big pond.
Follow all of Dave's sporting journeys on twitter @profan9.
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.
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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