IOWA CITY — The term “bench warmer” doesn’t usually refer to a good thing — unless you’re on the Iowa Hawkeye baseball team, which starts its season amid the snow and ice typical for February and March in the Midwest.
So when University of Iowa players arrived Tuesday for their home-opener to find actual bench warmers in their dugout — making Iowa the first baseball team with Dragon Seats’ custom heated benches — they celebrated the home-field advantage.
“Given the conditions we play in, Dragon Seats’ benches will play a critical role in giving our athletes that edge,” Hawkeye baseball head coach Rick Heller said in a statement.
The three 12-foot benches and one 6-foot bench juiced with heat powered from an external source outside the dugout are meant to curtail athlete injuries incurred from the stop-and-go nature of the sport, Dragon Seats Chief Operating Officer Franklin Floyd said.
“The key when you’re playing in cold conditions like this is keeping your muscle elasticity consistent,” Floyd said in an interview. “It’s really bad when you go from getting warm to then getting cold, than warm, cold, warm, cold … The fact that we’re going to be able to keep those muscles elastic, we think, will have major impact on player safety, which is really our whole mission.”
But only the Hawkeye benches in Duane Banks Field have the new warming technology, according to Floyd. Teams visiting the Hawkeyes at home must continue their reliance on body heat to stay warm on frigid game days.
“I think it’s going to give them a nice home field advantage,” Floyd said.
The UI Department of Athletics did not immediately say how much the new benches cost or how it paid for them. Officials also didn’t answer questions about whether the work went out for bid.
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Floyd said the charge to Iowa was under $50,000. He said he offered “some pretty significant concessions” since this was the company’s first venture into baseball.
“We were so excited about this opportunity to get involved in baseball,” he said. “This was below our typical cost.”
The 15-year-old Cleveland-based Dragon Seats started as the “heated sideline bench provider for the Cleveland Browns” in 2005 and today has benches on the sidelines of 19 NFL clubs, 41 NCAA Division I football programs, two XFL teams, plus other spaces and events — like ski resorts and the annual NHL Winter Classic.
“I think this is really just the start for us and baseball,” he said. “We started with one or two college football programs, and we’ve grown to over 45. I think a similar growth pattern will happen in baseball.”
Heller in 2018 reached out to Dragon Seats about the prospect of installing its heated benches in the Hawkeye dugout, according to Floyd, who said the coach was interested in improving player safety, performance and comfort.
“One area of focus is on providing the team with the best and highest-quality equipment so our players can be confident when they step into the batter’s box or onto the field,” Heller said in a statement.
Following months of site visits and preparations, company workers began installation in Iowa City in December and finished Saturday — just days ahead of the home-opener against the Grand View Vikings of Des Moines.
The warming technology, which can be turned on and off, involves using an external heat source connected to the bench.
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“We’re running about 200-degree conditioned air to each bench,” Floyd said. “So they could be playing baseball in 15, 20 degrees and the players will be very comfortable. It’ll heat the entire dugout.”
Baseball stadiums and fields, he said, are ideal for their benches — which can be both heated and cooled — since teams start playing in February and March in parts of the Midwest and East Coast where temperatures can drop into the 20s and 30s.
Considering baseball season also extends into the summer, Floyd said, the UI could choose to add the cooling technology, which he said has been shown to reduce the risk of heat stroke.
Although Floyd said Dragon Seats currently aren’t in any other UI stadiums or facilities, “We’re having an ongoing conversation with them currently about a permanent install in their football stadium.”
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