116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY - The once-proud University of Iowa men's basketball program plummeted to astounding lows last season - both on the court and in the cash register.
Not only did the Hawkeyes lose a school-record 22 games, but ticket revenue fell by more than $700,000 from the previous year. Carver-Hawkeye Arena on average was less than one-third full for most games and season-ticket sales dropped to all-time lows.
“We had good ticket prices. We have been pretty aggressive in terms of pricing downward,” said Rick Klatt, Iowa's associate athletics director for external affairs. “We reached a point where the product on the floor wasn't attracting customers.”
Following the season Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta fired Coach Todd Lickliter and hired Fran McCaffery. One day after McCaffery's hiring, the marketing department unveiled a new campaign designed to attract more fans. Although the Hawkeyes haven't won consistently in McCaffery's first year, fans are flocking to Carver-Hawkeye Arena in higher numbers than anytime the last four years.
Through 12 games official attendance is up by 2,080 fans per game this year, an 18.6 percent. Actual tickets used are up nearly 45 percent from 4,489 a game to 6,502. Iowa experienced its first official sellout in four seasons in the Big Ten opener against Illinois, and the Hawkeyes have three more home weekend gates this season which generally boost attendance.
“It's an opportunity, and it's a real opportunity. We know because we've experienced it,” Klatt said. “We have had significant revenue for us in that area of our budget. When we have our program back in terms of where we want it to be and we're smart in terms of our pricing, there's a real chance of revenue because we've been there once before.”
Klatt's optimism for Iowa's basketball future is rooted in the program's past. Iowa ranked in the top 25 nationally in attendance every year from 1978 through 2006 and averaged a sellout seven seasons during that span. From 1983 through 2002, Iowa averaged more than 15,000 tickets sold per game 13 seasons.
But in the last six years, as Iowa's basketball program struggled to maintain top-tier status, the financial numbers collapsed. In the 2005 fiscal year, Iowa's men's basketball program generated $4.03 million in ticket sales, according to documents provided to SourceMedia Group via the Freedom of Information Act. That number was about one-third of the ticket revenue from the school's football program.
In 2010, Iowa's men's basketball program earned just $1.9 million in ticket revenue, a 53 percent decrease over the six-year span. Basketball's ticket revenue earned less than 10 percent of the football program's $19.28 million. Basketball's numbers also ran counter to ticket revenue increases by football (33 percent) and wrestling (91 percent) over the same six-year period.
In recent years Iowa's administration tried extreme measures to bring back the fans. In the program's final five Big Ten games in 2008, Iowa charged just $10 for unsold single-game tickets. A year later Iowa slashed season-ticket prices by nearly 20 percent. But the measures didn't stop the decline in ticket revenue.
“The drop is probably simple reality,” Klatt said. “We weren't selling tickets a year ago. I think that's the obvious conclusion that can be drawn.”
“We'd like to think we've hit the bottom and now we're on the path upward with Fran as our head coach.”
When McCaffery was hired, the marketing staff debuted a new website under the phrase “Let's Be Mad Again.” The site solicited notes from fans to McCaffery, and more than 1,300 streamed to the new coach. Like his predecessors, McCaffery hit the I-Club circuit last spring speaking to fans all over the state. But in a new twist, McCaffery and his players delivered pizzas and handed out T-shirts to UI students in the dormitories. The response was strong. Iowa sold 1,630 student season tickets, the second-most since the 2001-02 season.
But that's where the promotional appearances end with McCaffery.
“They've never brought me in and said, ‘You have to go on the road, and you've got to make phone calls,'” McCaffery said. “My job is to put a product on the floor that people want to see and the marketing people sell the tickets.
“We're at a program that has drawn well and attendance has dropped off, and we're trying to get it back. We're dealing with a fan base that wants to come back, that wants to see us be good.”
No player is more passionate about Iowa basketball than junior Matt Gatens. The son of a former Hawkeye basketball player, Gatens grew up in Iowa City and attended sold-out games throughout his youth. He wants to play college basketball in an environment reminiscent of his youth.
“We realize there's more people than in a few years, but it's a process,” Gatens said. “We're still trying to get more and more until this place is sold out and packed like it was when I was growing up in the 90s and early 2000s.”
That responsibility lies with everyone involved with Iowa basketball, including Gatens. If the team can remain competitive and win games - like its 20-point blistering of Michigan State - Klatt believes the fans will return.
“Even though we're probably not winning at the level that (McCaffery) would wants us to win and frankly not at the level that many fans would like to start jumping off the couches and get in the car, but let me be very clear: there's a really bright future,” Klatt said. “We're in the middle of building a very nice foundation in year one.”