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Are Iowans embracing Black Friday rivalry game with Nebraska?

Annual gridiron battle contributes to 'unique time in Iowa City'

Iowa Hawkeyes tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz (right) celebrates with the Heroes Game trophy and the rest of the Hawkeyes after their Big Ten Conference NCAA football win over Nebraska at Memorial Stadium on Friday, Nov. 29, 2013, in Lincoln, Neb. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette-KCRG)
Iowa Hawkeyes tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz (right) celebrates with the Heroes Game trophy and the rest of the Hawkeyes after their Big Ten Conference NCAA football win over Nebraska at Memorial Stadium on Friday, Nov. 29, 2013, in Lincoln, Neb. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette-KCRG)

IOWA CITY — The Iowa Hawkeyes and Nebraska Cornhuskers do battle under a national spotlight in front of millions of viewers Friday, but here in the heartland going to Kinnick Stadium for the football game competes with family, hunting, Thanksgiving leftovers, food comas and, of course, shopping.

The schools have a budding, six-year-old Black Friday rivalry, which continues at 2:30 p.m., Friday on ABC, but the timing doesn’t work out for some. Kris Gulick, 58, a 36-year season ticket holder from Cedar Rapids, has yet to attend a Black Friday game, and won’t on Friday as he heads to Aberdeen, South Dakota, for pheasant hunting with friends.

“Usually going to the games are a high priority for me,” Gulick said. “It just happens because of the extra holiday day. It makes it a long weekend. and the long weekend provides the opportunity to travel.”

Many in this campus town leave for holidays, and other fans skip the game for one reason or another, yielding a more subdued atmosphere than the normal raucousness associated with major college football, officials said.

“It’s a unique time in Iowa City,” said Iowa City Police Sgt. Scott Gaarde. “For a home football game, at least since the Black Friday game started, it has been pretty quiet. The population decreases due to the holiday, and also with Thursday being Thanksgiving, we don’t see the big celebration the night before the game.”

close to a sell out

Nebraska football had been a TV fixture on Black Friday for years, with the team traditionally matched up against rival Colorado. When Nebraska left the Big 12 for the Big Ten in 2011, conference officials gave Colorado’s spot to Iowa, hoping to solidify a new football tradition between neighboring states and maximizing the rivalry’s exposure in a time slot with limited competition.

“It’s been a wonderful opportunity for us,” said Gary Barta, University of Iowa athletics director. “You have two really strong football traditions and athletic brands. ... We’ve gotten good feedback. No complaints. I think it’s been well received in the state and across the country.”

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Six years into the rivalry, Nebraska holds a 3-2 advantage and a one-score margin or less has decided three of the games. Iowa won last year in Lincoln to cap off a perfect 12-0 regular season.

Home field alternates from Lincoln to Iowa City.

Nebraska has sold out each of its games, although that is hardly unusual. The Cornhuskers started the season with an NCAA record streak of 347 consecutive sellouts.

Iowa has had strong attendance, but has yet to sell out a home game. They haven’t been clunkers, but also not on par with other major opponents such as Wisconsin, Michigan or instate rivals Iowa State.

Kinnick capacity maxes out at 70,585.

When Iowa hosted Nebraska for the first time in years in 2012, 69,805 people turned out — about 99 percent capacity — but it was also the only non-sellout that year, aside from the non-conference Iowa-Northern Illinois game. When Iowa next hosted Nebraska in 2014, 66,897 fans filled the stands, or about 95 percent capacity, which was roughly tied with three other games for second worst attendance of the seven-game home schedule.

“It may have taken a few years to work into people’s schedules,” Barta said, noting they are on the verge of a sellout for Friday’s game. Barta said the Black Friday game remains on the schedule for the foreseeable future and he hopes it continues.

About 500 game tickets remained as of Wednesday, said Steve Roe, spokesman for the UI Athletics Department.

VACANCY

Josh Schamberger, president of the Iowa City-Coralville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, can compare game weekends based on how hotels fill up. This year, the 2,400-some hotel rooms in the area were booked up weeks or months out for games against Michigan, Wisconsin and even North Dakota State, he said.

By comparison, as of Wednesday afternoon, 180 to 200 rooms remained available for Thanksgiving night, and 100 were available for Friday, Schamberger said.

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“Anytime we can get our state or our city out in front of a national audience that’s a good thing,” Schamberger said. “But, purely from a hotel standpoint, I think they’d much rather have the game on a Saturday and take advantage of a typical Friday-Saturday weekend.”

While the crowds may be a little smaller, from a business perspective, it appears the game has caught on, some said.

Becky Querrey, assistant manager at Wig and Pen, a popular stop for pizza in Iowa City, said her shop set a sales record when Nebraska visited in 2014, which stood until the Wisconsin game last month. They plan to staff up for Friday.

“It was a record day a couple years ago, so we have to prepare for that,” Querrey said. “Nebraska travels really well.”

The game also helps offset normally slow holiday business, some hotel officials said.

“Compared to a normal conference home weekend, it is probably a little off pace, but a little stronger than the non-conference home games,” said Dave Davis, general manager of the Radisson Hotel and Hampton Inn in Coralville. “The big difference is, historically, Thanksgiving weekend was dead. It was a holiday weekend you’d sell no rooms, so its been a win for hotels.”

Davis said many hotels require two night — Thursday and Friday — bookings this week, and among his hotels he had 11 rooms available at Hampton Inn and five left at the Radisson, as of Wednesday.

Bryan Stolz, general manager of the Coralville Marriott, said they are sold out.

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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