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Free-For-All Friday: Does Iowa Basketball Have a Carver-Hawkeye Arena Problem?

When Fran McCaffery came to Iowa City, he promised to make us all mad again and get Carver-Hawkeye Arena rocking. What can be done to help him deliver?

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Iowa
Carver-Hawkeye Arena has gotten a bit of a facelift of late, but is it enought?
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

JPinIC: Hello, Jerry…

Hello Jerry: JP! I can’t begin to tell you how relieved I am to see this pop up in my email. The desk job has been extra painful this week and your quick and sarcastic “Hello Jerry” meant that we’re almost at that moment when I can throw on a little Toby Keith, roll down my windows, let down my hair and start belting out the lyrics to “Get Drunk and Be Somebody.”

JPinIC: I feel like I could spend the next 3000 words berating you for your choice of music, but I may be fighting that battle alone here in the state of Iowa.

Instead, I was hoping we could get back to a topic we didn’t have enough words to really get into last week: attendance at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It seems like everyone has a complaint about it. Having been a season ticket holder since Fran’s first season, I can tell you the place seems to get sterile for long stretches. But on the other hand, the majority of the crowd seems poised at any moment to explode. And as soon as they do, there’s always SOMETHING causing them to promptly put their hands back under their bottoms and firmly plant them on their seats.

So let me just ask: WTF, man?

Hello Jerry: This topic is an absolute hot button for me for two reasons:

  1. I spent three years as a founding member of the Hawks Nest fighting the good fight against the Iowa Athletic Department in hopes of moving the student section out of the timeout corner to right behind the benches -- a la every major student section in college basketball. There’s a reason why it’s so hard to win at places like Maryland, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Duke (to name just a few). The students are able to dictate the crowd noise when they are able to fill up a substantial part of the arena. While the Hawks Nest Hot Corner is quite long, it’s just a corner of the arena. When the ball is at the opposite end of the court, they’re worthless. While we understood their hesitation, we tried to compromise by seeing if they would split the students into opposite corners of the court and we were shut down too. Could you imagine going back and forth in the next year or two between those two corners. That’s how you keep it loud and, to quote our boy Franny, “rockin’.”
  2. The big reason we were continuously shut down was two fold… first and foremost (especially at that time in 2008-2009), students weren’t showing up. I understood that. Begging for prime real estate to harbor a group of poor college kids that wouldn’t even show up to a basketball game that provided free tickets, shirts and pizza is tough sledding. Second, the people that are occupying those seats have deep pockets. It’s probably why they’re not interested in taking their hands out of them to hit them together to make noise. They’re so worried their shekels might slip out.

I understand that a lot of these people are donors. I understand that they are the reason Iowa has nice facilities and all of that jazz. But you mean to tell me that they wouldn’t enjoy watching four rows of students in front of them going bonkers all game long? That they wouldn’t have a ball watching kids, dressed like Fran going bananas as he goes bananas on the court? That they would be that big of sticklers over a six-to-eight row siteline difference?

I will stand by this for eternity: If you allow the students to take control of those seats and regulate it properly, say by an exclusive collaboration with a group like the Hawks Nest and the Athletic Department (who could easily do an honors/points program that could move students from the corner to behind the benches for going to, I don’t know, the OLYMPIC SPORTING EVENTS YOU CURRENTLY HAVE NOBODY AT), Carver would change for the better.

But I digress with my Hawks Nest infomercial.

Where are you at with all of this? Is this a fan section thing? Is this a donor thing? Does this have something to do with Midwesterners general temperament? WHAT IS IT JP?

JPinIC: I think you hit the nail on the head. There are a number of factors at play, but the major issue is the people who have the money for the good seats are not the same people who make noise at sporting events. There are some things that can be done to remedy that without totally upsetting the donor base, but it’s not the only problem.

On the student section front, even if you moved them, you have to loosen the handcuffs a bit. The kids are going to be a lot more into games if you let them do fun and different things. So why do you do everything in your power to restrict the fun at this point?

Hello Jerry: Preach!

JPinIC: And speaking of students, you have to find a way to get them there consistently outside of the product on the court. Fran has been putting a fun and exciting game on display for years, and while the students are much more plentiful than in the Lickliter years (and I acknowledge that we could probably just stop this post now as the comments will now divulge into a “where is he now”), there is massive room for improvement. Some of that is location of seats. Some of that is the No Fun Zone they’ve been allowed to hang out in. But there are three other big things that factor in: transportation to the games is OK, but not great. I’ve heard the critics shout from the rooftops that it shouldn’t matter - they make it there for football games. Editor’s note: transportation to games is not OK. It is abysmal.

And that brings me to the second issue - the schedule. This is out of the Iowa athletic department’s control, but there are seven home football games a year. All are on a weekend and all are either in the middle of the day or on an evening when there are no classes. There are 18 home basketball games in a year and most are on week nights when kids have classes the same night or the morning after. Getting them to come out in full force at 8pm on a Tuesday night to watch Rugters isn’t going to be easy unless the culture is massively shifted to something like what you have at Duke.

Third, if you get over to Carver, there’s literally nothing to do but watch a basketball game. There are no bars. There are no restaurants. The weather is too damn cold to stand outside and have a beverage. So if you were a college kid with the option to stand in a bar and have a drink instead of getting over to the arena early, which would you do?

One other issue I see for both students and the general fanbase alike is the ticket options. As it stands, people buy entire season ticket packages for 18 games and maybe they make it to all of them, maybe they make it to a few. The tickets aren’t cheap, per se, but they aren’t outrageous either. I don’t know the going rate for student tickets, but I have to imagine it’s somewhere in the “I don’t really want to front that cost if I can only make half the games, but it’s enough that mom and dad may give me a hard time when they see this hit the U-Bill” range. Prices aren’t truly prohibitive for anyone, but they are high enough to be a deterrent for some. Then those same people are forced into crappy seats when they buy singles. I honestly think this plays a large role in the atmosphere. When you open things up and lower prices, a la the NIT games this year and a few years ago, you see the rowdy crowd getting good seats at good prices and making some noise.

The counterpoint to that is clearly that the “rowdy” crowd is only locked in for one or two games in those NIT games, and the revenue is just gravy at that point, so it makes sense to lower the seats for fans to gobble them up. To that I say use that logic and find a solution for the rest of the year.

Did I lose you? Am I a rambling idiot? Wait, don’t answer that.

We agree there are some major issues at play here, so how do you solve them?

Hello Jerry: Back in the day, which, by the way, was a Wednesday (there’s some throwback Dane Cook humor there for you), I’m pretty sure season tickets for students were between $100-$150 which included a lunch pail that couldn’t actually fit any sort of sizable lunch so it inevitably became a paper weight, a shirt and a schedule magnet.

I remember the overall price was one of our biggest hurdles as a group. We legit had students come up to us and tell us that they didn’t want to spend that kind of cash because:

  1. They didn’t have it.
  2. They knew they’d only go to a few games because of how difficult it was to get there in the winter.
  3. They knew they’d be able to buy $10 tickets off their buddy if we didn’t end up handing out free tickets for every game anyways.

I’m sure a lot has changed since then (particularly the need to pass out free tickets), but I can’t imagine that the price has come down any… that’s not the way this sort of thing works.

But quickly, before I let you go into your rant (I know you have a rant) on the issue of quiet support for the team; you’re right about the concerns you raised above and just moving people around isn’t going to purely solve them all. But don’t you think that’s a Carver Hawkeye problem as a whole? It wasn’t made back in 1983 with any of this in mind. Let’s be honest with ourselves, it’s an arena that looks like a set piece on The Walking Dead.

You know what i’m talking about, right? One of those “safe shelters” that families all over Iowa swarmed to during the start of the zombie plague which inevitably has an outbreak the minute it reaches its max capacity. Editor’s note: Carver is a an architectural marvel that people don’t appreciate. Look, here’s a well-aged piece about the architecture of Carver that I just stumbled upon.

I know they added a lot to it, but it’s lipstick on a pig. Plus, I’m still convinced that when the end of days comes to pass, whoever is in CHA or the EPB will somehow make it out alive on the other side.

Now with that said, the floor is yours.

Is Carver a sanctuary for all who survive?

JPinIC: [I’m going to go ahead and admit something here that is sure to totally derail everything, but needs to be said to understand me totally glossing over your The Walking Dead reference: I haven’t watched a single second of the show. Not one. I know. I live in a terrible, sheltered world where zombies only exist for a few weeks in October. It’s a sad reality. Perhaps when JPinIC_jrX2 arrives and I’m home from work for a few weeks, I’ll take some time to binge and catch up with the rest of the world. Back on point.]

Oh buddy, you know I’m always good for a rant. I’m going to do my best here to rein this in and keep it focused on solutions rather than a full on rant. But, it is a free-for-all Friday so who knows where this ends up. So here goes:

The crowd noise issue is pretty well-known for Iowa Basketball. But when’s the last time you heard anyone say anything about a lack of noise or atmosphere in Kinnick? Yeah, thought not. You have a lot of the same issues in football as you do in basketball. The wealthy donors are the same people who don’t feel like standing the entire game or enjoy their neighbor screaming obscenities. Kinnick isn’t exactly in the heart of campus and there’s still nothing to do around the stadium in terms of bars or restaurants like you see at some of our Big Ten peers. But these problems are mitigated by a couple factors:

First, there are 70,000 people in Kinnick so a few thousand not making noise is easily overshadowed by the rest doing so in a drunken stupor. Add to that the fact the fans in Kinnick are literally on top of the sidelines and it creates a pretty loud atmosphere on the field you don’t get in every stadium.

Second, you take the ones most fitting into that group of hand-sitters (those with the deepest pockets, and greyest of hair - not to discriminate on age here but if you want to tell me Grandpa Joe makes as much noise as drunken college buddy Jerry I’m going to call you stupid) and move them a couple stories above the playing field and into fancy suites with perks. You replace them down on the field with someone who will likely make more noise. So you have more people in the stadium to cover up for the quiet ones and you conveniently place the louder ones closer to the field.

The best part? You squeeze more money out of both of them in donations - Grandpa Joe pays a few thousand more for that suite license and Average Joe goes from a $200 per seat donation section to a $600 per seat section because he can see better and scream obscenities at Randy Gregory from the 4th row (there’s certainly not video evidence of these things happening on anyone here’s phone).

And third, football has the benefit of being a sport where there are seven days a years fans have to show up. They all fall on the weekend and people can roll into Iowa City plenty early and get, uh, lubricated in advance of the game. People spend the money to get their seats because they’re only going to a few games a year and they are there to have a good time with it.

So, how do you replicate some of those mitigating factors for hoops? I’ve got ideas, Jerry. Boy, do I have ideas. The problem for me has always been reigning in ideas into something usable. So I’m going to lay out my ideas in descending order from least feasible to most.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Iowa
Fans continue to pack Kinnick every season. How does Iowa Basketball replicate that?
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Carver needs suites. It won’t ever happen, but it’s possible to do it in my opinion (I’m not an architect or a structural engineer, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night - note, that’s fake news, it didn’t happen). Costly, but possible. If they could expand the rotunda (and I think they’d probably have to lose a few rows at the top of the bowl as well to allow walking under the suites), they could put in boxes on either side or all the way around the top of the arena. This puts basketball in a similar position as football. You can now move the students to the sideline as you’ve proposed, which makes it louder by the court. But you don’t lose the donation money from the grey hairs. They would end up actually donating more money to have their fancy suite, with private bathroom access, wifi and table service for soft serve ice cream. For those that really want it, and there certainly are some great fans who fit this bill and kudos to them, there are plenty of floor seats available to large donors and you could probably milk them for more money by adding a few of the aforementioned perks for seats on the floor. I have no idea about the structural feasibility of doing this or the breakeven point on it, but I was once told you couldn’t structurally put a video board in the middle of Carver and that it was too expensive to add additional suites to Kinnick. Yet here we are..
  2. So you don’t want to spend millions to improve the situation? Fine, let’s scale it back some. Let’s just make some adjustments with the seating in general. Keep moving the direction you’ve been moving with the floor seats and sell every square inch of the wasted space created by playing basketball in an arena designed for wrestling. I mean, literally every open spot on the floor should be sold as either a season ticket or a single game. And for those nice, cushy seats on the floor, people need lots and lots of perks. Give them premium wifi access, a Carver app to order food and drink to be brought to their seat and access to a lounge, similar to what they get currently. Sell booze up to the under 8 timeout in the 2nd half within that lounge and try to find a way to get people who have these seats in and out of Carver easier. I’m talking about a personal shuttle service or preferred driving lanes so the folks who have historically gone to the rotunda at the under 4 media timeout and enjoy the whole game from the floor without worry of hitting traffic on the way out of town. Now that you have those people more on the floor and out of some of the prime seats in the stands, move the students to the sidelines. You probably want to throw an empty row or two behind them, but the added money you’re now making on the people who used to sit there should make up for that. Option B: put the students on the floor and take everything I said about floor seats and apply it to the first 10 rows or so on the sidelines. Added benefit to this approach is no empty seats since the stadium seats are elevated above the floor seats.
  3. This is by far the easiest one to implement and perhaps the only one with a shot at happening: change the structure for ticket purchases. The NIT games sell out because average people can buy decent seats and they aren’t committing to 18 games, most of which are on a Tuesday evening. So split up the season tickets into a bunch of categories: full season, half season splits and weekend/weekday splits. You could certainly add more, but that’s my start. Let the average person pay more money to lock in a handful of weekend games and make the place loud like they do for NIT games. And use the extra money from those games subsidize the weekday game packages to either entice people to buy more or lower the burden for people who maybe wouldn’t have wanted to buy only weekday games.
  4. Work to improve accessibility for students and fans alike to get to and from Carver. I know, I know, there are buses that run from Hancher to the stadium before and after the game. That’s great. I’ve done it. It works wonderfully before the game. After the game? In January? It’s terrible. You stand outside in the freezing cold for 45 minutes waiting to get on a bus. The system could be improved. And you really want to have a bus system that people want to use, don’t have it pick-up and drop-off from one location on the fringe of campus. The Hancher lot is nice for people commuting in. But what if you added direct shuttles from the Ped Mall, dorms and Coralville strip? Is there some added cost there? Yes. Is it worth it? In my mind, yes. Pay the Cambus folks dedicated to athletic events out of the athletics budget. They have the money. And after the most recent TV deal, they’re going to have even more. A few thousand bucks a year extra in Cambus spend is a literal drop in the bucket. And it’s just one more excuse you take away from the people who aren’t showing up consistently.
  5. Why not work with the city of Iowa City (ahem, excuse me… the city of University Heights - and maybe this is the answer right here) on some development around the stadium. As it stands, everything around Carver and Kinnick falls into one of three categories - university property for educational use, university property for the hospital, and residential. The lone exception is Stella, which absolutely kills it and not just on days when there’s a home football game. So why not work with the city to change the landscape a little? You know all those apartment buildings charging $5-10 to park bumper to bumper in the grass so you can’t leave for an hour after the game? Why not re-zone some of those lots into mixed use. They’ve been replacing those buildings left and right the last few years anyway. If you want to put up a new building now, first floor needs to be commercial. Get some bars and restaurants around Carver and make it a place people want to hang out around anyway. Want to really go outside the box? Why not do with Carver what you did with Hancher - put in a bar/restaurant IN the stadium. And like Hancher, don’t just have it open when there’s a show/game. Invite the public and students to get used to being in the venue by having it open for business a few nights a week.

I’m going to stop myself here, for a number of reasons. Primarily, I know none of this is likely to ever happen. I could rant all day about things that could be improved upon. But you don’t have all day to read. So instead, I’m going to sit back and ask you all, the BHGP community, how would you make this situation better?

Hello Jerry: Yes, please. BHGP take over. My eyes are glazed and my head hurts...