Education

Iowa universities focus pragmatically on athletic facility spending

No waterfalls, Italian marble planned in near future for Hawkeyes

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When Kene Nwangwu came for his visit to Iowa State, the team’s 100-yard indoor facility quickly caught his eye.

“The facilities were a good stepping point for why I came here,” the Iowa State running back said. “For me, it was actually coming out here to see them (that influenced me).”

Players like Nwangwu are increasingly valuing facilities in their recruitments, putting pressure on schools to keep up in an arm’s race for having the nicest and most state-of-the-art facilities despite limited resources.

“When you’re recruiting, you want to make a favorable impression,” said Gary Barta, the athletics director at the University of Iowa. “In at least half the cases, they’ve never been to our campus before, and so you get one chance to make a first impression. ... Having very nice, functional and good facilities is very important in recruiting.”

University of Northern Iowa athletics director David Harris said facilities always have been important, but he’s seen it get “magnified” since he started working in collegiate athletics.

Barta said it’s the second priority at Iowa behind to “recruit and support our student-athletes and recruit and retain our coaches and staff.”

Clemson included a mini golf course, four hydrotherapy pools, a nap room, 26,000-square-foot weight room in its new football facility. Oregon’s football facility has floors made of Italian marble and basalt rock with handmade rugs from Nepal.

The renovations have accelerated the competition between schools for the nicest facilities.

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“It certainly helps if you’re at the forefront of it,” said Joshua Gordon, a senior instructor of sports business at the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “But if you’re unable to keep up, the facilities that looked amazing a few years ago, look ho-hum.”

It’s gotten to the point that Gordon’s students working in Oregon’s athletics department viewed European soccer power Bayern Munich’s academy as “pretty bad” on a recent trip.

As schools like Clemson are adding mini golf to their football facilities, Iowa schools are focusing much more on practical investments.

“We want (our facilities) to be wonderful. We want them to be first class,” Barta said. “But in the Midwest and at Iowa, there are things that are over the top (like the Italian marble and mini golf) that we think we can use our resources for more important things.”

No mini golf, waterfalls or Italian marble are in the facility master plan, Barta said.

Likewise, Iowa State focuses on “providing services that student-athletes expect,” like student-athlete dining facilities and nutrition bars, instead of luxuries at some of the larger schools.

“We try to make practical investments in student-athletes with a touch of eye candy,” said Steve Malchow, the senior associate athletics director at Iowa State.

Part of the focus on practical investments is because of a lack of resources. Each athletics department has felt the strain of seeing bigger-budget schools building bigger and better facilities.

“You have to make sure the story that you’re telling (on a visit) is as good as those peers against whom you’re competing,” Barta said.

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“When your biggest competitors are doing things to improve their facilities, there’s always a pressure that you feel like you have to do something to make sure that you’re on the same scale or the same playing field,” Harris said.

The Hawkeyes rank seventh in the Big Ten in athletics budgets, Barta said. The Cyclones are last in the Big 12, Malchow said.

Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are among the Big Ten schools with substantially bigger budgets.

“We’re never going to have a budget the size of Ohio State or Michigan or Penn State,” Barta said. “It will never happen at Iowa. But we still expect to beat them every time we compete against them.”

Northern Iowa is in a tougher position in the Missouri Valley Conference. One year of Iowa’s athletics budget could pay for almost seven years of the UNI budget, based on numbers from each school’s most recent NCAA financial filings.

“(Iowa and Iowa State) are going to have far more resources to be able to make changes, to make additions, to make renovations,” Harris said. “You have to do what’s needed on our campus.”

It also forces UNI to be more efficient with its resources.

Harris has worked at larger schools like Wisconsin and Mississippi but still has felt this pressure.

“No matter what institution you’re at, there’s always a feeling of, ‘We need more resources to do more,’” Harris said. “The pressure is on all of us, no matter where you work.”

Part of the pressure also comes from non-recruiting consequences like overall perception of the university and potential revenue streams.

Harris said fans and donors notice quality of facilities before many other aspects.

“Fans ask about facilities more than they ask about some other areas of the department,” Harris said. “From a public perception standpoint, it tends to go to the top of the list or toward the top of the list (in interest).”

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When Iowa renovated Kinnick Stadium’s north end zone, the athletics department designed the club level so it could also host weddings, recruiting events and business meetings.

“That’s a source (of income) that we didn’t have before,” said Matt Henderson, one of UI’s senior associate athletics directors. “That’s a new income stream we’re excited to capitalize on.”

But Harris said it’s focused more on what are the immediate needs rather than immediately keeping up with a competing school.

“People are looking at what do you actually need in your department,” Harris said. “You can’t be worried about keeping up with the Joneses.”

It forces some athletics departments to get creative. Iowa State made a strategic investment in golf, building a $2 million facility with indoor and outdoor space for the men’s and women’s golf team.

It helped elevate Iowa State’s men’s golf from ninth in the Big 12 Championships in 2016 to fourth in 2018.

“I couldn’t even have a vision for it,” Malchow said. “It totally changed the trajectories of the women’s and men’s golf programs. ... It’s allowed us to recruit better student-athletes.”

Large television contracts in the Big Ten and Big 12 have allowed Iowa and Iowa State to participate in the arm’s race for the best facilities.

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“As revenue has grown in college athletics, we’ve had more resources to invest more in them,” Barta said. “But they’ve always been important.”

UNI does not have that luxury. For the Panthers, that immediate need is bringing teams back to campus.

“Having them back on campus, we feel like, will just make it easier for students who live on campus to be able to walk across campus and be able to see a soccer match or a softball match,” Harris said.

Harris said it also makes it easier for student-athletes to get to practice areas when the facilities are on campus.

The track and field project, which he said was one of the top priorities, still needs more fundraising. Renovations to the UNI-Dome will likely require several phases, Harris said.

Future plans are at the mercy of how much UNI can fundraise. Harris acknowledged he doesn’t necessarily expect everything on the strategic vision accomplished.

“It doesn’t mean all those projects are going to be accomplished in a five-year time period,” Harris said. “We know that some of these are really ambitious, really big projects that are going to take a period of time.”

Looking forward, Barta said it’s too hard to predict whether collegiate spending will continue or whether “facility investment” will continue to grow.

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Harris’ job likely won’t be getting much easier in the future. Gordon expects the upward trend in facility spending to continue, possibly leaving smaller athletics departments in the dust.

“You’re going to see the arm’s race (in facility spending) continue, and you’re going to see some people opt out completely,” Gordon said. “There’s going to be pressure on schools.”

l Comments: john.steppe@thegazette.com

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