On November 12, Northeastern’s men’s basketball team opened its 2017-18 campaign. A brand-new court design lined the floor of the historic Mathews Arena on St. Boltoph Street as the Huskies kicked things off against the neighboring Wentworth Institute of Technology; attendance on the day peaked at 1,014.
Two days earlier, the Duke Blue Devils had held their opener against Northeastern’s conference rival, Elon University. The top ranked team in the country, Duke drew 9,314 people to Cameron Indoor Arena.
The staggering difference in attendance between these two Division 1 NCAA games is, in fact, commonplace.
Simply put, the Huskies are a “mid-major” team, an informal term for those that do not play in the NCAA’s “Power Five” conferences. Mid-majors often struggle for notoriety and sustained success. Northeastern is certainly not immune from those problems.
That’s where Nicole Girard steps in. The university’s assistant athletic director oversees all marketing initiatives and recognizes the difficult terrain for the program in a city like Boston, which hosts many collegiate sports teams. The Huskies are forced to compete not only with three Division 1 programs within a five-mile radius, but also a professional sports dynasty that has brought its loyal fans 10 championships since the turn of the century. Girard has her work cut out for her.
“We’re working against the holy trinity,” Girard joked, “between pro sports, other colleges, and the city as a whole. In and of itself, we’ve got Northeastern to compete against in a way too. It’s not a very athletic-centric school.”
Northeastern University is considered the 40th best university in the country, according to the U.S. News and World Report, and for good reason, boasting opportunities for learning and work experience surpassed by few. Education and experiential learning come first on Huntington Avenue, leaving the athletic department to sculpt a program that caters to student-athletes who come for such reasons.
Recognition of mid-major status and nearby congestion are major challenges for Northeastern’s athletic department. There’s no budget to rival the country’s top programs, and too much noise nearby to truly break through on a similar level as an entire program until a long period of success forces such attention.
Instead, efforts are devoted to those who deserve them – the student-athletes.
“Really what we’re trying to do is make their experience here as great as possible,” Girard explained. “While yes, we want to break attendance records, and have fun at the games, the reason why we’re doing it is so that the students feel supported.”
Instead of seeing how the Huskies stack up against other teams, Girard and her team are looking at data analytics in ticket sales and running informal studies to identify and sell NU athletics to those who are most willing to support their student-athletes.
“We’re actually working with the business school right now on an analytics project,” Girard said. “Not only with ticket sales but also donors, our alumni, really to try and access what the Northeastern fan looks like.”
That means the students.
“The more that we can talk to students and get involved with them to get feedback, the better,” Girard explained.
“It’s about them, and creating an environment for them.”