Northwestern unveils plans for new football venue that resets the bar for stadium renovations
On Wednesday night, Northwestern University released plans and unveiled renderings of a new $800 million football facility that, when completed, will instantly become the best venue in all of college athletics.
The only word that came to mind upon seeing the plans and reading the press release was, “Wow.”
The only thought that entered my mind after hearing the echoes of that word ring out was equally as simple. “How can anyone keep up with this?”
The answer: I don’t think they can.
At a time when the University of Kansas is doing everything in its power to get its own stadium project off the ground, seeing this out of Northwestern is almost too wild to believe.
Billed as a venue that will be first-class in every way, the new Ryan Field will feature premium seating for every fan, the best sightlines in college football, a design that reduces noise and light pollution and world-class amenities that promise to make the gameday experience for Wildcat fans among the best in all of sports.
The venue will seat 35,000 fans — 12,000 fewer than its current 97-year-old facility — and is being promoted as “a year-round community asset” much in the way KU is trying to jumpstart its stadium makeover with year-round thinking for the 11th and Mississippi project.
The difference between KU’s project and the Northwestern gem is the money. Not only is Northwestern planning a project that is roughly twice as expensive, they’re getting it done without a single dollar of taxpayer money. In fact, plans call for all of the money for Ryan Field to come from private dollars, with the Ryan Family funding a massive amount of it.
KU has dozens and dozens of extremely generous donors. But KU does not have a Ryan Family. Nor does KU currently reside in the Big Ten. And KU Chancellor Douglas Girod recently told the Journal-World that the expectation with KU’s stadium plans was that it would involve Kansas Athletics Inc., taking on some debt.
KU Athletic Director Travis Goff, who came from Northwestern, also said earlier this year that he expected funding for whatever project KU moves forward on to come from a combination of private donations and public financing.
But both KU leaders are fans of tying stadium revitalization plans into year-round, multi-use functionality that would benefit both the university and the city.
The guess here, by the way, is that Goff was privy to certain aspects of the current NU plan while still serving as the Deputy AD at Northwestern, but it seems as if the specific details, the architects involved and the scope of the project likely were developed in large part after his departure in April of 2021.
Goff was involved with more than $400 million in facilities upgrades during his time at Northwestern, though, so it’s not as if he’s unfamiliar with high-dollar projects.
Whatever KU settles on — whenever that happens — will lead to a significant and sorely needed upgrade of the existing venue and also likely not come close to anything that’s happening at Northwestern.
There will be elements of the two plans that will mirror one another and possibly even overlap. A recent survey sent out by KU was designed largely to gauge interest in premium seating options, and the university is trying out many of those options in its newly remodeled Touchdown Club on gamedays this fall.
It also would make some sense for KU to at least consider what a capacity in the 35,000- to 40,000-seat range might look like rather than pushing toward 50,000.
Still, the difference between a project like the one KU is dreaming of and the one Northwestern has announced is massive and figures to be separated by several hundred million dollars.
That’s not a knock on KU, more a tip of the cap to what Northwestern and the Ryan family are doing in Evanston, Illinois.
As the arm’s race continues in college athletics — will it ever actually end? — universities from coast to coast will continue to strive for newer, bigger, better with all of their athletic facilities, particularly those tied to football.
But it’s hard to imagine very many of them — if any — will even come close to being what Northwestern is planning to build for its program in the near future.
Wow. How can anyone keep up with this?