The New Welsh-Ryan Arena is the most intimate and accessible arena in Chicago

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The New Welsh-Ryan Arena is the most intimate and accessible arena in Chicago

Peter Elliott, Guest Reporter

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The Chicagoland area is home to thousands of transplants from Big Ten schools. Innumerable local parents and teachers of Lake Forest earned their degrees from the likes of state universities in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

From bumper stickers to framed diplomas and color-bearing sweaters, many graduates of Big Ten schools take pride in their Universities. Most often, this is expressed through athletics, like basketball, a sport in which Big Ten schools have been historically dominant.

But for decades, to support their alma mater’s basketball programs, these Chicagoland transplants have had to, out of convenience, begrudgingly trek to nearby Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston to see their alma maters take on the Wildcats.

While Northwestern’s hoops program has improved its quality of play exponentially over the last decade, its facilities did not follow that trend line. Welsh-Ryan Arena was often besmirched by opposing Big Ten fans as a second-tier arena, for lacking in capacity, being confined, and having the audacity to preserve stiff wood bleachers in the 21st century.

But the denigration of Welsh-Ryan Arena will stop after this season, when Big Ten fans will get to experience the sport of college basketball in a totally re-imagined setting.

Since the conclusion of the 2016-17 season, the arena has undergone a $110 million renovation process that transformed the home of the Wildcats from a charming, but cramped, high school gym into a state of the art facility that rivals the top college basketball arenas in the country.

Before the start of the season, I was invited on an exclusive media tour of the new Welsh-Ryan Arena and got to see the finished product first-hand.

It’s a facility that even non-sports fans can appreciate, as the Welsh-Ryan renovation was funded solely through private donations, not by dipping into the coffers of Evanston taxpayers, as is commonplace in high-level athletics.

The New Welsh-Ryan Arena — as it is being billed — delivers on all of its promises, and then some. After an internal gutting that makes your spring cleaning look like a light dusting, the upgraded facility looks almost unrecognizable.

Improvements include:

  • Chairback seats in all but the sections where the students will stand
  • Center-hung four-sided videoboard
  • The most accessible arena for those with disabilities in all of college basketball, as every vantage point has a disability-friendly section
  • Concessions points-of-sale increase from eight to 36
  • Lobby doubled in size
  • Arena-wide air conditioning, as opposed to a few overworked, industrial fans
  • Five elevators replace the single one that serviced the old Welsh-Ryan
  • 100+ TVs throughout the concourse
  • Windows that allow natural light to flood in thanks to automatic translucent and blackout shades

There isn’t a bad seat in the arena, as every sightline offers an uncompromised view of the action. The New Welsh-Ryan trades capacity for intimacy, as the eradication of more than 1,000 seats to accommodate for the renovation makes it the smallest in the Big Ten in terms of crowd size. But as Northwestern men’s basketball head coach Chris Collins tells it, that coziness will give his team the edge.

“Once we get into the season and get into the conference [schedule], I think the intimacy of the building is really going to stand out,” said Collins. “I think it’s going to be loud, and hopefully give our guys the edge we need against the teams we’re going to play against.”

No matter where you allegiance lies, you’re bound to agree that the fan experience at Welsh-Ryan Arena is greatly improved.

Click on the link for an interactive look at the changes: