Northwestern’s new stadium plans evoke mixed feelings

Mack Jones, Staff Writer

On Sept. 28, Northwestern University announced plans to rebuild its football stadium, Ryan Field. The choice to build a new stadium in Evanston was made after a generous $480 million donation by the Ryan Family last year. The plans for a new stadium come after Northwestern ranked dead last in home attendance in the B1G in 2021. It is expected to be completed in time for 2026. 

Northwestern’s solution to the attendance problem is to decrease the number of seats. The new stadium will only seat 35,000, 12,000 less than its current capacity. However, it is still a larger number than the school’s average attendance last year. (In 2021, Northwestern averaged 30,796 people per home game.) The idea is to focus on the fan experience instead of going for the largest possible number, which they hope will bring in more fans than before. 

The new stadium will create a best-in-the-nation football experience for fans, student-athletes, and the community,” says a statement from Northwestern. It is unknown where Northwestern Football will play during the construction, but options include Wrigley Field, Soldier Field, or Guaranteed Rate Field. 

The stadium will be funded entirely through private dollars, so no taxpayer financing will be required for construction. Most of the money will come from Pat and Shirley Ryan and will be the largest donation in school history. The new Ryan Field will be the only new Power Five football stadium built this century without public money. It is estimated to cost around $800 million. The project is the most expensive stadium renovation in college football history, surpassing Texas A&M’s Kyle Field, which cost $450 million in 2013.

A new stadium is necessary. The original Ryan Field is historic, standing at 97 years old. It is one of the oldest stadiums in college football. Stadiums with similar historical backgrounds, Kyle Field of Texas A&M and Camp Randall of Wisconsin, were renovated in 2013 and 2022, respectively. 

“It’s just getting a little too old. The school has a whole section in the last corner of the stadium blocked off because of unsafe conditions. The bathrooms and everything aren’t the nicest places, so I feel like an upgrade is needed,” said Miles Lehmer, owner of the Instagram account northwestern.orbit

The stadium will be an upgrade, featuring a state-of-the-art canopy to focus noise and light onto the field. The new Ryan Field will be a modern stadium campus featuring recreational areas surrounding the stadium, similar to the recently built SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. Northwestern also wants to upgrade concessions in the stadium with new food options that will feature local restaurants.

In light of the Chicago Cubs organization being sued over ADA shortcomings at Wrigley Field, Northwestern has emphasized the accessibility of their new stadium, calling it “among the most accessible stadiums in the country.” The university also says the stadium will be a premium experience, with the best sightlines in college football and chair backs for every fan. 

There will also be a newly designed student section based on other sports. A sport that NU might have looked to could include soccer, known for the super-fans known as “ultras” for their hardcore attitude during matches. Upgrading the student section is especially important to provide a better experience for everyone. 

“Students don’t like going to it. They don’t think it’s a good stadium, especially when it gets colder. I mean, halfway during the season, it gets to freezing temperatures,” said Lehmer, “It’s especially important because we’re a smaller school. It’s more like a family. The student section is one way to foster that relationship.” 

Northwestern plans to start selling alcohol at the games, something that the university didn’t do before. Athletic department spokesman Paul Kennedy said in an interview with The Daily Northwestern that, “The main hurdle prohibiting alcohol sales at Ryan Field is the stadium’s location in a residential neighborhood.” 

Evanston is known to have stingier alcohol laws because of the city’s involvement in Prohibition. Northwestern managed to convince the City Council to allow alcohol sales at its basketball stadium, Welsh Ryan Arena, when the City Council met on February 10. The Evanston City Council has not yet reached an agreement for the Ryan Field renovation, but Northwestern plans to target alcohol sales as one of its main focuses. They also plan to host 12 concerts a year, and six scheduled home college football games. 

“I’m hoping the gameday experience doesn’t change with alcohol. I’ve had a couple of experiences with people getting angry. We could see some unexpected, unwanted behavior from fans so I’m hoping Northwestern does their best to try and prevent that,” said Lehmer. 

Northwestern President Michael Schill’s thoughts revolved around the forward vision a new stadium may usher in. 

“I am excited about this project, which will create a world-class new stadium befitting our world-class institution, our amazing student-athletes, our fans, our alumni, and the Evanston community,” Schill said. “I appreciate all the work my predecessor and the leadership team at the University have done to actively listen and solicit input from the community. I am looking forward to continuing that engagement and look forward to seeing this project come to fruition.”