November 27, 2022

A rendering of the new Ryan Field.

Northwestern University’s Ryan Field is slated to be demolished and replaced by a modern stadium that shifts the Evanston venue’s footprint, reduces its capacity, and sets it up to host concerts and other non-football events, according to a roughly $800 million plan approved last week by the university’s board of trustees.
In the first public unveiling of the design vision for the project, which was spurred by a $480 million gift last year from stadium namesakes Patrick and Shirley Ryan, school officials today showcased renderings of a new 35,000-seat stadium with a canopy structure over three seating decks and a field running northwest to southeast. All of those features would be dramatic changes from the existing 96-year-old stadium, which has a capacity of about 47,000 and a field that runs north-south.
If the rebuild moves forward as planned—the school is aiming to begin demolition late next year and open the new facility in time for the 2026 football season—it would be among the most ambitious and most expensive development projects in Evanston’s history. It would also give Northwestern one of the most modern stadiums in college football and allow it to pull in new revenue from events outside of the seven football games it hosts each year. The new stadium would add to a series of massive renovation and development projects the university has completed for its athletic department in recent years, buoyed primarily by Ryan family gifts as well as a financial windfall from the Big Ten Conference’s media rights agreements.
The new Ryan Field would have a capacity of 35,000, roughly 12,000 less than the existing stadium’s capacity.
A rendering of new proposed stadium looking east down Central Street.
“We are extremely excited to move forward with a transformational stadium project and grateful to our university leadership and to the Board of Trustees for their decision to take the next steps toward a new Ryan Field,” Northwestern Vice President for Athletics & Recreation Derrick Gragg said in the statement. “We are all grateful to the Ryan family for their unwavering commitment to Northwestern University and our academic and athletics programs.”
The new Ryan Field project, which is still subject to community review and approval from the city of Evanston, would be privately financed with the Ryan family’s 2021 donation leading the way, according to a statement from the school. School officials said the project budget has not been finalized, but sources familiar with the plan said the projected price tag is close to $800 million.
Northwestern Executive Vice President Craig Johnson said in a separate statement to Crain’s that the project will be financed with “additional private philanthropic support and the ongoing stadium operations,” in addition to proceeds from the Ryan family gift, which the Ryans have “now committed to increase.” Johnson added that the university itself won’t spend more on the new stadium than it would have had to spend to complete “necessary maintenance updates to the current facility,” though he did not specify a dollar amount.
“This plan has been designed in a way that does not jeopardize research, scholarship, student aid, tuition or faculty and staff support,” Johnson’s statement said.
Seating capacity at the new stadium would be reduced in part because the stadium would include individual seats with chair backs—unlike the bench seating that dominates the venue today—as well as an “innovative student section modeled on other sports,” the school’s statement said. The canopy circling the new stadium’s roof would be designed to focus noise and light on the field to help address concerns from residents that live around the site.
Unlike the current stadium, the new one would include corporate suites, though a university spokesman said the number is still to be determined as the stadium design is finalized.
The school said the new stadium would be one of the most accessible in the country for disabled attendees, feature “cutting-edge technology and scoreboards” and offer concessions featuring food from local restaurants. The angled stadium footprint would provide space outside the venue for plazas, a community park and publicly accessible green space for “year-round community activities,” the school said.
A rendering of a plaza outside the new stadium.
A rendering of the new Ryan Field interior.
Northwestern hired Kansas City, Mo.-based architecture firm HNTB as the lead architect for the project, the same firm that designed Allegiant Stadium, home to the Las Vegas Raiders. Perkins & Will is also working on the Ryan Field project as an associate design architect.
“The world of intercollegiate athletics is changing rapidly,” Gragg said in a statement to Crain’s. “The new stadium design takes into account the expectations of the modern fan—an incredible setting to experience Big Ten football, amazing sightlines, and a premium experience for every seat in the house.”
One new element that could stir controversy among Evanston and Wilmette residents is the school’s intention to host concerts at the venue, “since a facility like this cannot be financially viable on just seven football games,” Johnson’s statement said.
Johnson added that the school is “considering hosting a limited number of concerts each year,” but is not yet proposing a specific number of events. NU “intends to work closely with the city of Evanston, residents and community partners in determining the optimal number of concerts per year.”
The school statement cited preliminary studies that suggest “current interest in concerts in the area could generate over $35 million in new tax revenue for the city of Evanston from Northwestern over the first decade of the new Ryan Field.”
Whether Evanston officials will support the vision is still unknown, said Joe Flanagan, an Evanston business owner who leads an economic recovery task force for the town that formed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The prospect of new tax revenue and economic activity in the area is welcome, but the question will be how many more major events are added to the Ryan Field calendar.
“That’s going to be the rub,” Flanagan said. “My feeling is that the city (residents) are on board, but it’s the (Evanston City) Council that’s got to get on board.”
The school said it will share more schematics and imagery of the plan with residents at a series of listening sessions as it seeks the necessary approvals from the city of Evanston. Gragg said the school expects to finalize details “in the coming weeks” on where it will play football games during the two seasons when the stadium is under construction.
Aon Founder Pat Ryan and his wife, Shirley, have been by far the largest benefactors for Northwestern’s athletic program, providing leading gifts for the $270 million development of the Ryan Fieldhouse athletic complex on the school’s lakefront campus and a $110 million renovation of Welsh-Ryan Arena immediately north of Ryan Field.
Last year’s $480 million gift was the largest donation in the school’s history and capped off a seven-year fundraising campaign that pulled in more than $6 billion. The Ryan gift is being used to support the university’s Feinberg School of Medicine, Institute for Global Health, Center for Applied Microeconomics and Kellogg School of Management, in addition to the Ryan Field project.
“Our family’s commitment to athletics is much deeper than football. It’s about developing the body, mind and soul, which we experienced as undergraduates at Northwestern and have carried with us throughout our lives,” Pat Ryan said in the school’s statement. “The new Ryan Field will be more than just an amazing home for Wildcat football. Our hope is that through this new stadium campus, Ryan Field is reimagined as an architecturally significant year-round gathering place for the Northwestern and Evanston communities that is accessible to all.”
The Ryans financially backed the last overhaul of the stadium in 1997, when it was renamed Ryan Field from the original Dyche Stadium. But the venue has become severely outmoded compared to its peers and remains the only major college football stadium without permanent lighting.
The school estimated the teardown of the stadium and construction of a new one would generate more than $10 million in direct fees for the city of Evanston and more than $600 million in indirect economic impact. The project would create more than 2,900 construction jobs.
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