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On Iowa, UNI, and the Future of the Big Four Series

So, Iowa lost by twenty at UNI. For the first thirty minutes of the game, it was extremely close. Iowa led by ten early; UNI once led by seven. Nevertheless, the game wasn't officiated too well, increasingly to the benefit of Northern Iowa, and McCaffery lost his mind. At the ten minute mark of the second half, Iowa's bench picked up two technical fouls following a completely absurd offensive foul call on Zach McCabe, giving UNI four free throws and the ball. On that possession, McCabe was called for a defensive foul on a play virtually identical to the one which drew an offensive foul at the other end of the court. He responded by spiking the ball, drawing another technical foul and sending him to the bench. UNI got four more free throws, made them all, and stretched their lead from two to ten. From there, it was elementary: The referees kept tilting further into UNI's favor, the Panthers (who, to clear any possible misconceptions, did nothing to encourage this) took advantage, and the game spiraled out of control. McCaffery got tossed a few minutes later, when the referees refused to call a foul on a reverse DDT committed on Basabe during a rebound skirmish. Iowa's coach, Iowa's players, and Iowa's fans lost their minds, and that was that. UNI wins big, and the contract between Iowa and UNI came to an end.

Todd Lickliter didn't do much right at Iowa -- his three years at Iowa were a disaster, actually -- but there were a few topics on which he was correct. In fall 2007, at the beginning of his first season as Iowa's head coach, Lickliter questioned the logic of Iowa and Iowa State playing UNI and Drake in a continuous home-and-home series. Lickliter's argument made sense: The Big Ten was going from 16 to 18 games per season (with an eye to 20 for a full pre-expansion round robin), Iowa didn't normally get a big presige bump from a win in either game, and, as Lickliter said, the Indiana small schools never got -- and would never expect -- home-and-home series against Indiana and Purdue. He didn't come out and advocate and end to the Drake and UNI series; he merely said they should be "examined".

He was right to bring it up then, but the time to do it is now. Three of the five contracts which create the Big Four series -- Iowa's contracts with UNI and Drake, and Iowa State's contract with UNI -- are up at the end of the season. Iowa State has one game remaining on its contract with Drake, a 2012 game in Ames. The Iowa-ISU contract -- an even matchup, really -- is still in effect, but can certainly be renegotiated if the deal with Drake and UNI is improved for both parties, and we propose that it can. In fact, we believe the series can be changed to improve the environment, the competitiveness, and the schedules of all four teams. It's a simple idea floated by Lickliter in 2007 and proposed again today by some in the media: The Big Four Tournament.

The Venue: Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines holds 16,110 for basketball. That's more than Carver-Hawkeye (15,500). That's more than Hilton Coliseum in Ames (14,350). That's more than the McLeod Center and Knapp Center (each around 7,000) combined. It's a central location for all four teams, and both Iowa State and Iowa have played non-conference games there in the last two years. It's also in the state's biggest city, where all four schools have massive donor bases, and is easily accessible by fans from all four schools (the furthest drive for any local fan is two hours; from any corner of the state, four). It's the perfect venue for the Big Four tournament we and others have proposed.

The Format: Two days, two games. The coaches of the four teams would meet on the steps of the Capitol on the Friday before the tournament, where the governor would draw two names from a hat. Those two teams would play the first game Saturday afternoon, with the second game on Saturday evening. The losing teams would play a consolation game Sunday afternoon, with the state championship decided Sunday night.

Tickets: Ticketing would be by session, much like the conference tournaments, eliminating two logistical issues: Fans not knowing which tickets to purchase (given that we'd only know the draw 24 hours in advance) and fans having to clear the stadium for the second game (decreasing the burden on security). The other upside of session ticketing is pricing: Tickets would average at least $50 a seat for each session, increasing the total amount of revenue available to all teams. Fifty bucks a seat for two days of 16,000 seats is $1.6M. That's a lot of scratch for these four programs. Giving each major school an allotment of 3,000 seats and the minor schools 2,000 would be about right, at least as a starting point, and the split of revenues would be on the same terms (30% each for Iowa and Iowa State, 20% for UNI and Drake). That would leave 6,000 seats for the general public, every one of which would be sold weeks in advance. If there is any doubt of a sellout, remember that both Iowa and ISU have nearly sold out Wells Fargo for non-conference games against Creighton in the past two years. Throw in a strong regional presence from UNI and Drake's hometown fans, and this is a gimmie.

For the Big Schools: Iowa and ISU are aligned in their goals here: Free up a game on their already conference-game-heavy schedules, play the games against UNI and Drake on more favorable terms, remain revenue neutral, and give a benefit for boosters. The format itself takes care of the first goal, as each team would likely play the other once and a mid-major in the other game, depending on the draw (this wouldn't be true this year, for likely the first time ever). The location (and elimination of a game) should resolve the second concern, as these become neutral-court games without a specific schedule (to be fair, the current games -- especially at Drake -- are 60/40 splits already). The booster benefit will come from the ticket allotment; both teams cater relatively well to their Des Moines fanbases, but rarely go so far as to play a local game in the state's biggest city. The tournament makes both programs -- Iowa, in particular -- accessible to a group of fans who otherwise wouldn't have the inclination to make the long drive east to see a game.

As for revenue, the accounting is simple: In a two-year stretch, each team plays three games at home and three on the road as part of the Big Four series. I don't have contract details, but any revenue-sharing arrangement between the schools is a net loss to the larger teams, which would pay a larger amount as a percentage of tickets sold. For the sake of the argument, we'll call it a wash. That means each team is getting revenue for three home games every two years. Assuming a sellout (a massive stretch) at an average of $25 a ticket (again, a real stretch), that equals about $1.1M in revenue over three years for each school. In the new system, each school would receive approximately $1.0M as its share of ticket revenue, essentially a wash, but would also have the flexibility to add another sacrificial lamb to the home schedule, which would make more than $100k in revenue even with horrible attendance. Any concern over a decrease in season ticket price or sales can be augmented from the university's allotment of tournament tickets; make those seats an add-on option and watch the orders fly in. This doesn't even account for the possibility of additional television money, either, as every sports fan in the state without tickets tunes in.

In other words, Iowa and Iowa State would free up another game, make more money, get the mid-majors (and each other) on a neutral court, and improve relations with fans in Des Moines and west of Interstate 35. It's a win-win-win-win.

For the Small Schools: The small schools want the status quo, obviously, but they have far less in negotiating power heading into discussions of a new contract. Doomsday is obviously no games at all, and a "win" is still getting those games in some form and a revenue stream on par with the former setup. On its face, the tournament makes them more money; assuming sellouts of their three home games a year against Iowa and Iowa State (a given for UNI, which sells out almost every game, but not so much at Drake, where there were empty seats for this year's Iowa State game), each team draws approximately $350k from its two Big Four home games every two years (remember, Drake and UNI play twice in conference, and so don't play a game in the usual December Big Four cycle). In place of that revenue, they would each receive 20% of gross revenues, or approximately $640k. The difference in revenue is more than enough to make up for the nominal decrease in season ticket values each may experience for not having that one "marquee" game against Iowa or ISU on the schedule each year; if each team sells 5,000 season tickets a year, they could withstand a price drop of $58 a ticket and still break even, and basic economics would indicate that taking one game that makes $25 a ticket at face value from the season ticket bundle would not result in a $58 decrease in ticket price. That's more money for Drake and UNI, and with UNI under pressure from the legislature to get self-sufficient and Drake renaming parts of the basketball court, that could be some serious money. Also, Drake and UNI would be doing this without significantly increasing costs of participation (Drake is essentially at home; UNI would spend nominally more than it does to send its team to Ames or Iowa City every year, but they just flew from Old Dominion to St. Mary's for back-to-back games, so I don't think they have right to complain). And, again, this doesn't account for TV money that is virtually nonexistent in the current format.

The format itself should eliminate any concern over the other big problem: A decrease in stature. If UNI and Drake had to open the tournament every year against the big schools, then play each other in the consolation game (or waive it to avoid a conflict with the Mo Valley), it could diminish those schools beyond the current equality they enjoy. Throwing everyone in a hat, though, does nothing of the sort; everyone has a chance of playing everyone in every game, so they could play for the state title. And think about it: Drake as state basketball champions has a nice ring to it. We'll get a hideous trophy with shelves for everyone's mascot or something. It will be awesome.

The fact is, it's time for this series to adjust. UNI is a bona fide mid-major heavyweight now, and Drake grabbed a #4 seed in the NCAA tournament within this blog's lifetime. There's no doubt the games should continue, and I don't believe anyone has seriously advocated a complete end to the series. It's good for basketball fans across the state.

But this would be better. This would put everyone in the same arena, winner-take-all, with partisans all around, corners of black, red, blue, and purple. It would have a conference tournament feel, and it would draw fans from across the state. The time is right to change the Big Four, and this is the way to do it that would benefit everyone.