From Kinnick to Kernels, attendance decreases hit teams in Eastern Iowa

Changing viewing habits among reason for recent drop-off

August 19, 2019 | 7:00 am
Fans attend a Midwest League baseball game between the Cedar Rapids Kernels and Burlington Bees at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, August 6, 2019. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Chapter 1:

The trend

When David Harris played football at Ole Miss in the early 1990s, attendance hardly seemed to be an issue.

“Being at a game was always the place to be,” Harris said. “Even if the game was televised, everyone would want to be at the game.”

But Harris, now the athletics director at the University of Northern Iowa, is dealing with an issue permeating almost every level of collegiate athletics — a decline in fans wanting to come to games in person.

Since 2014, Iowa’s three public universities — in three separate conferences and with budgets varying from $14 million to $130 million — have been suffering from drastic decreases in attendance or stagnant attendance numbers in best-case scenarios.

“Certainly if you’re an athletics director, it’s at the top of your mind,” Harris said. “I think every athletics director I’ve had a conversation with is concerned about attendance, whether it’s football, basketball, you name the sport.”

The trend is not exclusive to Eastern Iowa and is not necessarily a new phenomenon.

College football is at a 22-year low for attendance. The Big Ten’s average football attendance dropped by 6.8 percent from 2008 to 2018. Football attendance in the Pac-12 decreased 19 percent from 2008 to 2018.

Fans head to the exit during a timeout with 3:48 to go in the second half of the Big Ten Conference basketball game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. (The Gazette)
Chapter 2:

Few exceptions

Out of the three Iowa public schools’ three main spectator sports — football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball — Iowa women’s basketball was the only team to have an attendance increase from 2014 to 2018 by more than 7 percent. Coach Lisa Bluder’s program experienced a 24-percent increase in attendance between 2014 and 2018.

That program had the luxury of Megan Gustafson, last year’s Naismith Player of the Year. University of Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said the attendance increase is more than just the impact of Gustafson, citing top-25 attendance rankings the last nine seasons and Bluder’s consistent on-court success. Yet attendance during Gustafon’s senior season — 6,797 fans per game — was the highest in at least two decades.

“Our product is good, and fans appreciate it,” Barta said.

It’s been more troubling for teams without a Gustafson-caliber player on their roster.

At least one of each school’s three main spectator sports has experienced a decline in fans from 2014 to 2018, the five most recent years of data.

Iowa men’s basketball has experienced a 20-percent fall in attendance from 2014 to 2018. Barta attributed part of it to the team’s 14-19 season in 2017-18, but there has been plenty of on-court success in other seasons.

Coach Fran McCaffrey has taken the Hawkeyes to the NCAA Tournament in three of five seasons. In 2015-16, The Hawkeyes also had their first top-three ranking in the Associated Press poll since the 1988-89 season.

Its attendance in 2018 — 12,026 — was ninth-best out of the 14 Big Ten schools. In 2014, the Hawkeyes were sixth in attendance in the Big Ten.

The Hawkeyes’ nonconference schedule hasn’t helped matters either. When McCaffery’s team played host to Green Bay on Nov. 11, the Hawkeyes drew 10,597 fans. Against Western Carolina on Dec. 18, attendance was 9,642. Both are a far cry from the 15,500-seat capacity of Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Barta’s goal for basketball attendance.

“‘How many of these are compelling games?’ is a fair question at this point,” said Joshua Gordon. Senior Instructor of Sports Business at the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. “It’s such a mismatch at times that you’re there more for the event (as a) holiday than the sporting event and the unpredictable nature of it.”

Barta downplayed the drop in attendance as being “cyclical.” Before the attendance drops in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, attendance increased in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.

“It goes in trends,” Barta said. “Some of it is cyclical with how the team is doing.”

Gordon said whether these trends continue depends on how much the NCAA allows schools to treat games like an entertainment product.

Iowa State’s football attendance has increased by 7.3 percent from 2014 to 2018, which senior associate athletics director Steve Malchow attributed to finding ways to enhance the game day experience, ranging from better restrooms to a new video board.

The on-field product has improved dramatically for the Cyclones, as well. In 2014, Iowa State won one home game — a 37-30 victory over Toledo. In 2018, Iowa State lost one home game.

The Hawkeyes have done similar measures at Kinnick Stadium, including the Kinnick Edge renovation to the north end zone, but attendance has increased by less than 1 percent.

Fans cheer on the Northern Iowa Panthers as they face the South Dakota State Jackrabbits during the second half of a game at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2018. (The Gazette)
Chapter 3:

Small school? Big cost

A trip up Interstate 380 to Cedar Falls shows an especially bleak picture for attendance. UNI women’s basketball has experienced a 34-percent drop in attendance from 2014 to 2018. Attendance decreased again in 2019 by almost 300 fans per game.

The rest of the Panthers’ premier programs aren’t doing much better. UNI football experienced a 25-percent drop and men’s basketball faced a 13-percent decrease during that time.

For larger athletics programs like Iowa and Iowa State, a lofty television deal provides some cushion. Iowa State received $28.4 million in media rights in the 2017-18 fiscal year, per the school’s most recent NCAA financial filing obtained through an open records request. Iowa received $42.4 million in media rights in the 2017-18 year.

But for a mid-major like UNI, that cushion doesn’t exist. UNI has $14.5 million budgeted for its athletics department in the 2019-20 fiscal year, a fraction of the Hawkeyes’ nine-digit budget. Iowa had more revenue in donations in 2017-18 than UNI had in total revenue.

“If you look at the amount of money the Big Ten or Big 12 get from their TV contracts, that would far and away exceed the amount of our total athletics budget,” Harris said.

The decrease in ticket sales means less money to spend on resources to keep the Panthers competitive. The Panthers budgeted almost $650,000 less for their athletics department in 2019-20 than in 2018-19. It also disrupts the athletics department’s “Panthers Rising” strategic plan, which outlines projects like upgrades to the UNI-Dome and on-campus playing fields for the soccer and softball teams.

Gordon said the bleak future for many smaller athletics departments may eventually force schools to drop football or lowering it to Division II or Division III.

“You only have so many teams that are truly able to compete at the highest level,” Gordon said. “You’re going to see some people opting out completely.”

Aside from the financial impact, Harris said it also can impact recruiting.

“You want to go into an environment where there are people that are excited about the sport,” Harris said. “You want to see sellout arenas.”

Iowa State fans cheer after a first down during the first half of an college football game, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018, in Ames. (Matthew Putney/Freelance)
Chapter 4:

The culprits

Gordon connected the nationwide decreases in attendance to a multitude of issues. In the college game, he said fans have been less sympathetic to the NCAA’s fight to keep athletes from being paid than they have been to the NFL’s concussion controversy.

Many fans are opting to watch games on TV instead of making the trek to Kinnick or Jack Trice Stadium every week.

Between ticket price and minimum donation level, a pair of season tickets at the 50-yard-line of Kinnick Stadium for one year is more expensive than a new 75-inch television from Best Buy. For a pair of season tickets at the 50-yard-line on the lower level of Jack Trice Stadium, someone could buy at least three of those TVs.

Gordon also pointed to increases in sponsorships and commercialization affecting the pace of the game.

“The actual events themselves start to have a slower rhythm, especially if you’re talking about football,” Gordon said. “College football now is a fairly more drawn out and slower affair than it used to be.”

Fans attend a Midwest League baseball game between the Cedar Rapids Kernels and Burlington Bees at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, August 6, 2019. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Chapter 5:

Beyond the college game

The problem is not exclusive to collegiate athletics. The Cedar Rapids Kernels, the single-A affiliate for the Minnesota Twins, have gone from drawing 2,697 fans per game in 2013 to 2,132 fans so far in 2019.

Doug Nelson, the CEO of the Cedar Rapids Kernels, attributed the decreases to unusual weather and changes in the way people want to follow their teams.

“The last three years have been very cold and wet springs,” Nelson said. “It’s been pretty much hot, muggy summers, which certainly has an impact on us.”

This year has been particularly difficult for the Kernels, whose attendance has dropped by more than 200 fans per game. Nelson attributed it to the particularly harsh spring.

“It is very hard to sell a ticket to a game when it is 45 degrees out with a 20 mile-per-hour wind blowing right into your face,” Nelson said.

This has forced the Kernels to find new sources of revenue such as hosting concerts and other baseball-related events at Veterans Memorial Stadium. This year, the Kernels hosted the NCAA Division III World Series and will have a concert by The Pork Tornadoes on Saturday.

Nelson also expanded operations to provide concessions staffing for other athletics venues and purchased the Waterloo Bucks, a team that plays in the summer collegiate wood bat Northwoods League. Midwest League teams in Appleton, Wis. (Wisconsin Timber Rattlers), and Comstock Park, Mich. (West Michigan Whitecaps), have followed similar measures in purchasing Northwoods League teams (the expansion Fond du Lac Dock Spiders and Traverse City Pit Spitters).

Nelson said these measures are enough to keep a balanced budget. There’s a limit to how many events they can host when there are already 70 Kernels home games on the schedule, though.

“We maybe only have a half-dozen open weekends throughout the summer,” Nelson said. “Before long, there just aren’t a lot of weekends available.”

The Kernels are not the only ones getting creative with ways to bring people into the seats. Collegiate teams have implemented a variety of ploys, ranging from fun for kids to more restrooms.

UNI has sectioned off part of the UNI-Dome as a “Kids Zone,” which is part of UNI’s efforts to broaden its audience from die-hard fans of a particular sport to people who are “fans of having a great time.”

Iowa sought an outside firm to improve the fan experience and ticket revenue at football games. Carver-Hawkeye Arena got a new video board in an effort to “make that experience (at Iowa games) as positive as we can,” Barta said.

“(Adding a video board) didn’t create more revenue, but it’s part of the fan experience,” Barta said. “We just keep looking for ways to improve the fan experience.”

Other improvements in recent years for the Hawkeyes include improving data accessibility with cellphone carriers at Kinnick Stadium.

The newest set of renovations at Kinnick Stadium decreased the capacity of the 90-year-old football stadium by more than 1,000 seats. It resulted in more concessions, women’s restrooms, suites and space for each fan in the seats.

Harris said he’d be open to any measure to boost attendance, including removing seats like what his counterpart 90 miles south did.

Quality of seats instead of quantity of seats has been the national trend.

“Fan experience is important, so you react to what the fans want,” Barta said.

Gordon said food and alcohol are important in finding ways to keep people at games like what NBA teams have done.

“You’re looking for pop-up restaurants and all kinds of high-end (food options),” Gordon said. “They’ve been stuck in the tradition and figuring, ‘We’ll just do the same tailgate we’ve been doing for 50 years, and we’ll just have the same basic presentation and the same food and people are fine with the nachos and cheese that’s poured in the cup.’ I don’t think that’s holding true.”

Barta said the renovations aren’t to reduce attendance. It’s to “enhance the fan experience.”

In a pool of uncertainty around attendance, one thing remains certain. Despite media rights on the rise, Barta said attendance will always be important, even if it’s a smaller slice of the budget.

“Attendance absolutely matters,” Barta said. “The electricity you can feel in the air creates a home-field or home-court advantage. It’s fun as a fan to come. It’s fun as a student-athlete or a coach to play in front of that energy. Attendance absolutely matters.”