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What can be done to fix Iowa basketball’s attendance

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Carver-Hawkeye Arena is too big for the population base it serves - is there anything which can be done to make it better?

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Iowa Hawkeyes have just 8 games remaining at home and, so far, have had sparse attendance, at just 10,946 paid attendance/game. It nets out to 73% capacity, assuming each person who bought a ticket shows up.

Not everyone shows up.

Rob Howe and Scott Dochterman went in depth about it, saying it’s been a problem for decades. They even mention that part of the reason for Dr. Tom Davis’ firing was, in part, due to attendance starting to wane. Yet their broadest take is that Iowa fails to meet expectations. They also go after the scheduling pretty aggressively, I’m not convinced an uptick in opponent would really sway fans. Paid attendance was a shade over 12,000 for a rivalry game against Illinois and 10,000 for Maryland. Those are quality opponents which should yield actual attendance close to, or well above, the paid numbers.

Yet there are a number of issues which plague Iowa, some of which is their fault and some which is simply a function supply and demand.

Carver is too big

Let’s start here, because it’s the issue which is least rectifiable. Carver, at a 15,500 person capacity is the sixth biggest in the conference. The metro area, at 171,491 is second smallest. The enrollment, at 30k, is third smallest. It’s simply a capacity which cannot be met.

To put that into a different bit of context, let’s portion out a third of the arena for students, city population, and metro population. For Iowa, they need to have one in 5.9 students, 1 in 14.4 of the city population, and 1 in 18.7 non-city metro population to show up to have a full crowd.

Wisconsin, which yields the highest attendance in the conference per a recent FS1 graphic has numbers which are much more in the favor at: 1 in 7.9 students, 1 in 46.9 Madison residents, and 1 in 71.5 non-Madison metro residents to fill the stadium.

The three schools alongside Iowa as sub-200k metro areas in the Big Ten are Purdue, Indiana, and Penn State. Purdue & Indiana were alongside Wisconsin as the highest attended basketball teams. After all, in 49 states it’s just basketball...but that’s Indiana.

Big Ten Arenas & Metro Areas Analysis

School Arena Capacity On/Off Campus City Total Enrollment City Population Metro Population Student Need City Need Metro Need
School Arena Capacity On/Off Campus City Total Enrollment City Population Metro Population Student Need City Need Metro Need
Northwestern Welsh-Ryan Arena 7,039 Off Evanston, IL 22,316 78,110 9,618,502 1 out of 9.51 1 out of 33.29 1 out of 4066.09
Maryland Xfinity Center 17,950 On College Park, MD 40,709 34,740 6,385,162 1 out of 6.8 1 out of 5.81 1 out of 1061.35
Minnesota Williams Arena 14,625 On Minneapolis, MN 52,017 429,954 3,690,261 1 out of 10.67 1 out of 88.2 1 out of 668.78
Ohio State Value City Arena 18,809 On Columbus, OH 61,369 905,748 2,138,926 1 out of 9.79 1 out of 144.47 1 out of 196.69
Rutgers Jersey Mike's Arena 8,000 On Piscataway, NJ 50,411 57,778 863,162 1 out of 18.9 1 out of 21.67 1 out of 302.02
Wisconsin Kohl Center 17,249 On Madison, WI 45,540 269,840 680,796 1 out of 7.92 1 out of 46.93 1 out of 71.47
Michigan State Breslin Student Events Center 14,797 On East Lansing, MI 49,695 48,579 541,297 1 out of 10.08 1 out of 9.85 1 out of 99.9
Michigan Crisler Center 12,707 On Ann Arbor, MI 47,907 123,851 372,258 1 out of 11.31 1 out of 29.24 1 out of 58.65
Nebraska Pinnacle Bank Arena 15,147 Off Lincoln, NE 25,057 281,082 340,217 1 out of 4.96 1 out of 55.67 1 out of 11.71
Illinois State Farm Center 15,544 On Champaign, IL 52,331 88,302 222,538 1 out of 10.1 1 out of 17.04 1 out of 25.91
Purdue Mackey Arena 14,848 On West Lafayette, IN 45,869 54,964 182,281 1 out of 9.27 1 out of 11.11 1 out of 25.72
Indiana Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall 17,472 On Bloomington, IN 42,552 79,168 175,506 1 out of 7.31 1 out of 13.59 1 out of 16.54
Iowa Carver-Hawkeye Arena 15,500 On Iowa City, IA 30,448 74,828 171,491 1 out of 5.89 1 out of 14.48 1 out of 18.71
Penn State Bryce Jordan Center 15,261 On State College, PA 45,901 42,034 158,742 1 out of 9.02 1 out of 8.26 1 out of 22.94
Info from Wikipedia

Iowa isn’t a basketball school

Football is the center of the sports universe when it comes to Iowa sports. That’s the case at pretty much any major college. There are exceptions, of course, including Iowa State, but that is often a result of football being really, really bad for large swaths of a basketball school’s history. In some ways, basketball schools are just football schools-in-waiting.

With that in mind, it is worth looking at how Iowa has performed under Fran when basketball is no longer on the backburner during the football season:

Iowa Records under Fran

Season Football Record Bowl Result Post-Football Basketball Record
Season Football Record Bowl Result Post-Football Basketball Record
2010-11 8-5 W 4-15
2011-12 7-6 L 10-11
2012-13 4-8 N/A 20-12
2013-14 8-5 L 8-11
2014-15 7-6 L 12-8
2015-16 12-2 L 12-8
2016-17 8-5 L 10-9
2017-18 8-5 W 6-15
2018-19 9-4 W 12-10
2019-20 10-3 W 12-7
2020-21 6-2 N/A 17-9
2021-22 10-4 L 1-1

Iowa is just 124-115 in basketball (52%) once football season concludes. This is not necessarily an indictment, as it is almost exclusively a function of playing Big Ten games from January-onward, but if a fan is hoping to go see the Hawks take home a win, they are investing their time and money into a coinflip.

While I think the coinflip nature of Iowa’s record provides some freeing aspects where a fan could look past whether a game was a win or loss and view it more as an entertainment perspective - Iowa’s offense-forward approach leads to fun basketball much more often than not - they don’t. Even the ugliest wins are more entertaining than pretty losses.

Lacking in “event” quality

Iowa basketball has just three home weekend games: Saturday, 1/22 against Penn State; Sunday, 2/6 against Minnesota; and Super Bowl Sunday, 2/13 against Nebraska. Tough sell for those. The flipside is they play just three weekend road games, including a Friday tilt with Nebraska.

The takeaway here is that Iowa simply isn’t a high-value television product, which drives the scheduling. After all, they had 10 last season when they were a preseason top 5 outfit who more-or-less met expectations until the postseason came around.

It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Since Iowa does not draw eyeballs, they do not get those more desirable timeslots. The result is an inconvenient schedule to draw fans outside Iowa City’s limited metro population who might come to a game because they are increasingly willing to spend a night there and/or the multi-hour road trip it takes.

One area it’s not a chicken-and-egg situation: the own goal of raising Luka Garza’s jersey in front of an empty arena. That was an event Iowa wasted.

Additionally, Iowa wrestling has six home weekend tilts of their own - part of this is due to the nature of wrestling’s Friday/Sunday scheduling. Rhetorical question: does Iowa’s ability to sell out Carver for wrestling deprioritize basketball attendance even further?

So what can be done?

To me, the first step for Iowa basketball to improve as a value statement for fans is just...cater to the ones who are already willing and able to make it to any given game. Howe & Dochterman went in detail here, but an additional hang-up they really didn’t discuss is the friendly fire which occurs between fans who want to stand and those who want to sit. Both are fair opinions to have.

To split the baby, I’d turn CHA into two swaths to allow the sections behind the bench to be general admission seating for anyone. The rest would be ticketed seats. It would resemble the raucous 2020 Maryland game despite occurring during a Friday snowstorm. The best fans had the best seats!

Any fan should also be able to get into any game for twenty bucks a head. Run it like a loss leader to get butts in seats until fans prove the critics wrong. Howe mentioned making it cheaper to get in as well, and I agree that students would get in for free. If the administration is that concerned with losing money on student tickets, bury a $200 fee like plenty of other schools do inside the tuition bill (JP’s idea). Six million dollars. You’re welcome, Gary.

Then you get to scheduling discussions and since the Big Ten went to 20 games with two occurring in early December, that’s fair reason to avoid home-and-homes with like-minded teams. I get back to - if fans aren’t gonna turn up for the Illinois rivalry while football is alive, I’m not convinced they’ll turn up for any team who’d agree to schedule a home-and-home with Iowa. But Iowa has done well meeting fans where they’re at, particularly with the Sioux Falls games (3,250 capacity). Would it make sense to hold a multi-team event at Xtream Arena (5,000) or the Alliant Energy PowerHouse (9,000)?


The nature of Iowa sports has Hawkeye basketball serving as third billing at a wrestling school while swimming upstream with the metro population and rural nature of the state. Carver-Hawkeye Arena can be a great place to watch a basketball game but is too often held back by attendance woes and quiet fans.

Yet there are ways to improve the attendance & experience without dismissing the concerns of any portion of the fanbase. If Iowa continues to go down the path of stale home crowds, it becomes a problem without an answer.