Iowa Hawkeyes

Hawkeyes athletics expands effort to up ticket sales, enhance game-day experience

'Football generates the most revenue and demands attention'

Iowa Hawkeyes tight end Noah Fant (87) is unable to catch a pass under pressure from Northern Illinois Huskies safety Trayshon Foster (11) before a game against the Northern Illinois Huskies at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Sept. 1, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes tight end Noah Fant (87) is unable to catch a pass under pressure from Northern Illinois Huskies safety Trayshon Foster (11) before a game against the Northern Illinois Huskies at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Sept. 1, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — With ticket sales down and another Hawkeye sports season around the corner, the University of Iowa is escalating efforts to grow attendance and revenue via new digital marketing methods and strategies for enhancing the “live competition environment.”

UI Athletics on May 31 gave WMT Digital of Miami a one-year, $30,000 contract to, among other things, grow the Hawkeyes’ brand awareness; create individualized campaigns for ticketed sports; analyze digital data; and report back on the impact.

Success or failure will hinge on Hawkeye athletic ticket revenue, which in the 2018 budget year — the most recent data available — reached its lowest point since at least 2013. It generated a combined $25.3 million from UI ticketed sports that year, according to new data provided to The Gazette.

Ticket sales reached $28.3 million in 2017, $25.7 million in 2016 and $26.6 million in 2016, according to NCAA reports.

Game attendance accounts for a large chunk of the UI Athletics revenue pie — although Iowa increasingly has been relying on its lucrative Big Ten television contract, with media rights revenue nearing $42.4 million last year.

Still, as a self-sustaining enterprise that doesn’t tap the campus’ general fund, UI Athletics recently initiated several attempts to improve ticket sales — through new marketing contracts, campaigns and game-day enhancements.

“Football generates the most revenue and demands attention,” UI officials earlier this year told a prospective bidder for the new digital advertising contract. “All the other sports need ticket sale increases.”

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Football generated $21.3 million from ticket sales last year — down from $23.7 million in 2017. Men’s basketball, the Hawkeyes’ second-most-lucrative sport, also saw a revenue drop, from $3.6 million in 2017 to $2.9 million last year.

UI athletics said nine ticketed sports “will likely need a campaign.”

Although WMT landed the new athletics digital advertising contract just weeks ago, it partnered with the UI last year for an online campaign “case study” aimed at better marketing a handful of Hawkeye sports, including football, volleyball and men’s and women’s basketball.

The university paid WMT more than $100,000 for that work, according to its contracts.

“Our goal was to drive up their monthly new users, website purchases and conversions, reach, link clicks, and total revenue,” according to the WMT-Hawkeye case study.

WMT reported its online marketing efforts tracked 6.9 million impressions and 60,239 clicks. It reported demographics skewing majority male, with its largest audience in the 55 to 64 age range.

“The day we started working with WMT, ... (it) immediately developed the trust of our department and enhanced our SEO and digital marketing to new levels,” the WMT website quotes Kelsey Laverdier, UI assistant athletics director of marking and fan management, on its website.

Game-day director

The university also recently sought proposals for a “HawkVision game day director and consultant” charged with, among other responsibilities, using the in-venue production technology to “enhance the live competition environment for fans.”

That role includes developing video-wall productions for football, basketball, wrestling, volleyball and gymnastics; managing advertising, video, game statistics and scoreboard messages; and serving as the game-day director.

Since 2004, UI Athletics has been using Focus Productions Inc. for those game-day services — granting Jim Berg, the Iowa City-based company’s owner, more than a dozen contracts or extensions for HawkVision or related production work.

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The Board of Regents in 2004, just before his first video production contract with UI, signed off on Berg as an approved conflict-of-interest vendor, as his wife, Karen J. Berg, was and remains a nurse clinician at the UI Hospitals and Clinics.

Before Focus Productions took over, Actions Sports Media owned and operated a control room trailer for Kinnick Stadium’s first Jumbotron, according to UI Athletics spokesman Steve Roe.

UI Athletics didn’t publicly bid its initial contracts to operate HawkVision, which it granted Berg using standard professional services agreements.

Agreements for work meeting or topping $50,000 are supposed to go out for bid, per UI policy, unless officials produce a “sole source justification” proving no other vendors could provide the work.

The university provided to The Gazette a sole-source justification for Berg’s contract, dated December 2006, that reported Berg had been providing game-day production services in Kinnick for nine seasons and was “uniquely qualified” for the job.

“Jim understands the balance between the desires of the fans and the desires of the Athletic Department to provide a safe, respectable game day environment,” according to the justification documents. “Jim provides consistency for our department.”

The forms indicate the UI did not attempt to find any other potential vendors.

UI Athletics first put out for public bid the HawkVision contract in 2014, awarding it again to Berg, followed by two contract extensions that will expire June 30. In total, the university has paid Focus Productions $920,452 over the years for its services.

Berg could not be reached for comment. Numbers listed for Focus Productions no longer are in service.

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The new request for qualifications from prospective HawkVision directors seeks a partner “with knowledge and experience in working in sports video in-venue production and particularly for NCAA Division I collegiate institutions.”

It went out for bid May 15, with a deadline only two weeks later, on May 30. Athletics needed a quick turnaround, Roe said, because the production company “must be up and running 100 percent in early August, in preparation for fall sports seasons.”

The work, he said, will include previous and new north end zone video boards inside Kinnick Stadium. The university hasn’t awarded the contract yet, which is supposed to take effect July 1 and extend through June 30, 2022 — with options to extend to up to five years.

• Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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