You know the smell. The pungent odor of Natural Light in Elder. Consuming this nectar of the gods was the best way to ease the pain of the coming trek: the journey to Allstate Arena.
The alcohol also blunted the trauma that awaited me, and all Northwestern basketball fans, at home games this winter. After capturing an NCAA tournament bid for the first time in school history last season, NU’s basketball team kicked off its encore season at No. 19. Nothing could hold the Wildcats back —except construction.
Welsh-Ryan Arena, where students stormed the court after the historic victory over Michigan that sent the ‘Cats to the Big Dance, was out of commission this winter. The $110 million renovation will offer new amenities like a nutrition center and enhanced lighting, but the construction has thrown the basketball program into limbo for much of the past year. The team was practicing on campus at Blomquist Gym — yes, a Big Ten college basketball team practiced at Blom — and playing home games at Allstate Arena in Rosemont. Instead of the casual 15-minute walk or five-minute shuttle to Welsh-Ryan, Wildcat fans faced a daunting hour-long bus ride to the stadium.
Andrew Jacobs, a former Northwestern football manager and self-proclaimed sports fanatic, bristled when describing his experience in the student section at Allstate. The typically exuberant senior looked ready to sink into fetal position.
“It doesn’t feel like home,” Jacobs says. “It very much feels like an away game.”
But his face lit up at the mere mention of last season, as he recalled the electric environment in Evanston during Northwestern’s magical run to the tournament.
“The students were engaged. It was bumpin’,” Jacobs says. “Last year was the peak, and it was absolutely fantastic.”
To its credit, the athletic department did everything in its power to get students to Rosemont. Emails about free shuttles, promotional giveaways and catered food from Chick-fil-A, Culver’s and Papa John’s flooded student inboxes. Wildside even offered shuttle riders a $15 meal voucher for concessions at Allstate.
Desperation was hardly a good look, but things soon took a controversial turn: Before a matchup with Penn State, walk-on Charlie Hall announced that the fraternity boasting the largest attendance would receive $1,000 and free Under Armour shirts. And, for a bout with Michigan on February 6, the athletic department pledged $10 to Cradles to Crayons for every Dance Marathon participant who attended. Even at these larger games, students struggled to fill the risers behind the basket; without the pep band, fans only filled a few rows.
“There’s enough people there that it doesn’t feel empty, but the student section is 50 people instead of hundreds,” Jacobs says. “It’s significantly smaller. It doesn’t feel as loud.”
Despite a meager student section, my time at Rosemont was wild and wonderful. After walking to Blom to catch a shuttle for the showdown against Illinois, I grabbed a free Culver’s cheeseburger and geared up for a lively night. A sketchy bottle of rum and Coke made its way up the aisles of the bus during our long trek. When we finally pulled into the vast abyss that is the Allstate parking lot, Wildside representatives greeted us with the prized $15 concessions vouchers. My traveling companions were quick to point out that a 24 ounce can of beer was, quite conveniently, $13.
Filled with liquid courage, a group of boisterous freshmen led the small but mighty Northwestern crowd in trash talking the overwhelming number of Illinois fans in attendance. Each foul was met with ecstatic chants of “bullshit!” Perhaps the highlight of the night was the student section frenzy in response to Steve Aoki’s “Turbulence” blaring over the PA system. But nothing could truly compare to the satisfaction of Bryant McIntosh and company conquering the Illini in overtime — a rare Big Ten win for the good guys.
Still, it would be hard not to call the season a flop. Maybe last winter was a fluke. Playing in a new arena certainly didn’t help. And some athletes have been skeptical since the announcement of renovations, none more so than senior forward Gavin Skelly.
“It sucks,” he said during a preseason media day. “Playing at Allstate is going to be really weird.”
And weird it was. In the end, we had no choice but to drink our Natty to the return of Welsh-Ryan next fall. But now, Allstate, I bid you farewell. I hope we never meet again.