AMES — Over the last several weeks, the Iowa State athletics department — along with Iowa State president Wendy Wintersteen and her staff of scientists and administrators — have had more meetings than you could shake a COVID-19 nasal swab at in regard to how, or if, fans could be allowed during Iowa State home football games.
They started with three plans — 50 percent attendance, 25 percent attendance or no attendance. As Iowa State rolled out its protocols and mitigation strategies, the 30,000 tickets it originally sold dropped to just below 25,000. Iowa State athletics director Jamie Pollard said Monday he expects the number to continue to go down as fans find out the socially-distanced seat they’re assigned.
Iowa State has decided to move forward and allow 25,000 fans to the Cyclones’ first game against Louisiana on Sept. 12.
Before Monday morning’s meeting with Wintersteen and her staff, Pollard was prepared to not let any fans inside Jack Trice Stadium. Story County, where Ames is located, is the No. 1 COVID-19 hot spot in the country, so he figured it wouldn’t work.
“The timing of it isn’t what a PR person would want to draw up as a game plan,” Pollard said. “But we don’t get to choose the timing of things so we have to deal with the facts. In this particular case, I have to rely upon our president and her scientists and they did a big presentation on that this morning, and it was really eye opening. It was eye opening to hear experts that work in a space that I don’t work in, walk through those numbers.”
Pollard said people can skew data in any way to fit any argument they want. When the Big 12 chose to play football, Mayo doctors argued one side and University of Kansas doctors argued another.
But Iowa State’s scientists eased Pollard’s worry.
“What I heard today was scientists that broke down those numbers,” Pollard said. “They didn’t shy away from them or hide from them, they just said, ‘Let’s look at what the numbers really mean.’ What they laid out painted a picture that the university could stay open, it didn’t need to go online only and felt like with further testing and further mitigation — and the athletic department is going to be part of that.
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“One of the things I learned is the amount of testing Iowa State is doing because we have the Vet lab and that we’re able to do a PCR test, which is an amplified test that has a much higher positivity rate than an antigen test. Some of our numbers appear to be much larger because we’re testing more in the last two weeks, we made a concerted effort to do targeted testing in the last two weeks because we anticipated that with the students coming back that this would probably happen. It was no surprise to anybody.
“The numbers do seem big and in the end, I have to rely upon the experts to analyze that part of it. If it was just athletics making this decision, I probably would’ve said, ‘Ooh, I don’t know if it’d be wise to go forward with fans right now.’ But they helped me find our way through this and they told us we should move forward with the plans we put together.”
Iowa State had previously released protocols and mitigation strategies of no tailgating, masks at all times inside the stadium, no concessions besides water and pop among other things.
On Monday, Pollard made sure it was known those policies are non negotiable and if they aren’t followed, fans won’t be in attendance again.
“We need fans to comply,” Pollard said. “We don’t need fans showing up to tailgate despite the fact that we said not to tailgate. That will not be well received. It’ll be policed and it’ll damage our ability to have fans for the Oklahoma game (on Oct. 3). Fans will be required to wear a mask. If they don’t wear a mask, we won’t be having fans for the Oklahoma game.
“We’ve laid it out as straightforward as we can be. The fans that have chosen to still come, need to understand that our expectation is 100 percent compliance. I’ll personally have zero tolerance for any fan that doesn’t comply — I don’t care how much money they give this institution. If you want to be in the stadium, you’re going to have to comply. If you don’t do it, then we don’t want you here. I don’t care who it is.”
Pollard didn’t shy away from acknowledging there is an economic factor and motivation to the decision.
Iowa State is faced with a $17.4 million shortfall — assuming football goes off without a hitch. He cited Iowa’s athletics department cutting four sports as an example of what happens if football can’t happen and you lose the revenue from attendance, in-stadium advertising and TV contracts.
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So far, Pollard believes Iowa State athletics will be able to survive financially due to the 10-percent payroll cut for all athletics department staff and Iowa State cutting another 20 percent from its annual budget. But without football, it’d be tough.
“There are economic issues — I have 215 staff members,” Pollard said. “What (Iowa athletics director) Gary Barta is dealing with right now, I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. That’s tough, to look across the table and start laying people off. And sons and daughters that you sent off to college to their dream school because they want to swim or be a gymnast, and then you take it away from them? I know that wasn’t an easy thing to do. I don’t want to be in that spot if we can avoid it. In the end, we may not be able to avoid it.
“That’s my message to this fan base: Do your part. Do your part and let’s see if we can make this happen. If we can make it happen, it could be an incredible success story. If it doesn’t work — for whatever reason — then we have to pull the plug but I’ll know we tried.”