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Attendance soars at Iowa State amid Big 12 crisis

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Scott Dochterman

AMES — The Big 12’s fractured state has yet to dampen the enthusiasm Iowa State fans have for their football program.

In fact, it may have deepened Cyclone fans’ resolve.

The Cyclones have shattered a school record for season-ticket sales this fall en route to a 3-0 start. As of Wednesday, Iowa State had sold 37,446 season tickets, toppling the previous record of 36,610 in 2007. Additionally, this year’s number is 18.3 percent higher than last year and attendance ranks 35th nationally.

The surge in ticket sales have Iowa State officials pleasantly surprised.

"It’s hard to analyze why the numbers went up this year," said Steve Malchow, Iowa State’s senior associate athletics director for communications. "I’m having a hard time distilling what the real factor is, other than what Paul (Rhoads) has accomplished. He has won some big games. He’s extremely proud to be a Cyclone, and people have bought into that.

"The normal factors, we didn’t have a bowl game last year. There was enthusiasm for this year, but it wasn’t like we were crying like this was going to be our year. We’ve had a good home schedule this year, but I think when you squeeze it all down, it’s Paul Rhoads and the belief he’s instilled in both our fan base and our team."

Iowa State has posted two of its top five crowds in school history in home wins over Northern Iowa and Iowa. Ticket sales for next week’s game against Texas have exceeded 53,000, which would blast the school’s all-time mark for best attendance through three games by at least 9,000 fans.

It’s an important step for the program, especially this season.

"It means that people like our product, and I don’t blame them," Rhoads said. "We’ve put a football team out there that likes to play, that’s exciting to watch and gives off great energy. I like to say they give it up — they give it for this university and they give it up for our fan base — and I think our fans recognize that and come out and support them. It’s exciting."

The last three weeks have generated fear as much as excitement among Iowa State’s administration and fan base. Iowa State stood to lose the most from the constantly shifting landscape of conference realignment. In early September, Texas A&M announced it will leave for the Southeastern Conference. Oklahoma President David Boren then announced his school would consider leaving the league for the Pac-12.

Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech followed suit, and it appeared all four would join the Pac-12, possibly as soon as this week. Missouri reportedly had an offer from the Southeastern Conference. Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Baylor all were in danger of losing significant revenue and looking at cross-country conferences or a merger with holdovers from the Big East Conference.

But the Pac-12 declined to invite the four, forcing the remaining Big 12 to reconcile. Iowa State officials have remained mum on the situation, including Thursday when President Gregory Geoffroy declined to comment through a spokeswoman.

The situation rattled Iowa State fans, who believe their school has more to offer than a date on a football schedule. Iowa State generates more athletics department revenue than six other BCS schools — Mississippi, Mississippi State, Wake Forest, Washington State, South Florida and Cincinnati — according to 2009 figures supplied to the U.S. Department of Education. Iowa State’s revenue ranks just slightly behind fellow Big 12 member Texas Tech and 2009 ACC football champion Georgia Tech.

Iowa State is a member of the American Association of Universities, a prestigious research consortium consisting of 61 North American schools. ISU has qualified for six bowl games over the last decade, tied with Kansas State and one behind Missouri and Texas A&M. Iowa State has won three bowls; Texas A&M has won only one bowl (2001 Gallery Furniture Bowl) since 1995.

But with Iowa State’s location — 940 miles from Austin, Texas — and lack of football tradition (10 bowl games historically), it perennially gets tossed aside when Big 12 competitors consider other schools. That bothers Granger resident Kent Chesmore, a father of two daughters who attend Iowa State.

"The thing is Iowa State isn’t know as a powerhouse so they’re not going to get the same options," Chesmore said. "Even though their football program is coming back and possibly basketball, they could get stuck in a pretty crappy conference and never get out of it. That concerns me a lot. Iowa State is a great school."

As for the players, they’ve seen a renewed spirit for their program from the amount of Iowa State gear around campus to the double-takes on their way to class. They’ve also heard about disparaging remarks from Texas and Oklahoma sources regarding their program, their city and their football stadium. Instead, the players use the words as a positive despite their negative connotation.

"I wouldn’t want to play in Jack Trice with our fans," Iowa State linebacker Jake Knott said. "If they don’t like coming here, that proves it’s a good place to play in for us."

"There’s a lot of bandwagon hopping going on," Iowa State tackle Kelechi Osemele said. "It’s good for the community, and it’s good to get people in the seats. We’re selling tickets in a way we’ve never did in the past. So that’s good. I feel like that reflects on our team’s success."

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