By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Multiple times I have written about the atmosphere and the layout at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and how both leave so much to be desired.
This is my latest attempt to shed light on a situation that only seems to be getting worse.
The two biggest flaws with the arena are that it doesn’t have a middle concourse/mezzanine, or a student-section that is seated courtside and arranged more horizontally than vertically.
To change both of those things would greatly enhance the atmosphere, and one of the flaws would be easy to address.
Move the students to courtside.
And while you’re at it, also let the students in for free.
To those who say that would cheapen the product and wouldn’t be financially feasible, nothing cheapens the product more than an empty student section.
Let the students in for free and then hope they would spend money at the concessions stands.
That would be better than students not attending the games, which seems to be a growing trend.
As for having no middle mezzanine, that should’ve been addressed nearly 40 years ago when the arena was built.
But for some reason, most likely money, it wasn’t.
It would cost millions to add a middle concourse, but moving the student section wouldn’t cost very much, and letting them in for free almost certainly would create other revenue streams.
The walk from the good seats at Carver-Hawkeye Arena to the upper concourse where the concession stands are located can suck the breath out of the average fan.
Iowa knows that, and yet, no changes have been made because adding a middle mezzanine just isn’t practical under the circumstances.
But to keep the student section where it is now, and where it has been since the arena opened in 1983, also isn’t practical.
Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta sat courtside during the Iowa-Iowa State men’s basketball game on Thursday at Hilton Coliseum in Ames and watched and listened to how a real home-court advantage should look and sound.
Barta has to realize how much better the environment is in Hilton Coliseum compared to Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
And it should bother him, maybe even embarrass him.
And while it’s true that Iowa State is giving its fans a reason to attend games with a stunning 9-0 start under first-year head coach T.J. Otzelberger, the Cyclones also finished 2-22 last season, and yet, students still waited 2 ½ hours before Thursday’s tipoff to gain entrance to the arena.
What it would take to get Iowa students to line up 2 ½ hours before any event at Carver-Hawkeye Arena is anybody’s guess, maybe the unveiling of a real Bigfoot, cash prizes, or free tuition.
The atmosphere at Purdue for Iowa’s Big Ten opener on Dec. 3 at Mackey Arena was incredible. Students were packed in two sections behind both baskets because one section isn’t nearly enough to hold them.
Many of the students arrived an hour before tip-off because there was no other place they would rather be.
Or, so it would seem.
And, yes, Purdue is currently ranked No. 1, but Purdue is also a far cry from being a Duke or a Gonzaga, and yet, its students are fully engaged.
But with Iowa, there is a serious disconnect between the students and Carver-Hawkeye Arena that has festered for years.
With the right pieces, Carver-Hawkeye Arena can be transformed into a raucous home environment.
It just takes so many pieces to make it happen.
The biggest piece, of course, is that Iowa has to be good, and the opponent has to be good.
But that doesn’t always happen, and that’s when students stay away and the environment for lack of a better word sucks.
Adding to the frustration and inconvenience this season has been a lack of open concession stands.
I counted 31 people in line at one of the two concession stands that was open for the North Carolina Central game and the arena wasn’t even half full. There were over 40 people waiting in line at the nearby ice cream stand just minutes before tipoff.
Gary Barta said on his last appearance on KCJJ radio a few months ago that finding enough game-day help and volunteers is one of the biggest challenges facing the athletic department as it tries to move beyond the grip of the global pandemic.
The concession stands usually are operated by volunteers from area non-profit organizations that get paid by Aramark, which supplies the food and equipment at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and for numerous other college arenas across the country.
If there aren’t enough volunteers, I’m told that Aramark either tries to find staff, or the concession stands operate at less than full strength.
It appears that only half of the concession stands have been open for the first seven home games.
In no way am I criticizing the people who operate the concession stands during a game because to do that on a volunteer basis is very noble and not the easiest work.
But you would think between Iowa and Aramark that a better game plan could be implemented because the current one isn’t working.
If you can’t find enough volunteers then come up with a fallback plan because the current setup is borderline dysfunctional, having to wait in long lines when the arena is nearly three-fourths empty.
The pandemic still, obviously, is a factor and it’s hard to blame someone who isn’t willing to work or volunteer under the current circumstances.
But it’s also hard to ignore the money that Iowa is losing due to the long lines.
I have a friend who attends most of the home games with his wife, and up until this season, they would make dinner part of the game-day experience by ordering from the concession stand, usually at least one pork tenderloin basket.
However, they have stopped eating at the arena this season because they aren’t willing to wait in ridiculously long lines.
So, that’s probably about $20 to $30 that Iowa is losing in concession sales for each game just in this one case, and we can assume it’s hardly an isolated case.
That starts to add up when you assume that my friends probably aren’t the only ones deterred by long lines.
Some bring up the success of wrestling in drawing fans and that’s a good point because Carver-Hawkeye Arena does deliver for wrestling.
But we’re also talking about the defending national champion that in a bad year still finishes in the top five nationally. Wrestling also has about one-third of the amount of home events as basketball, and has a different fan base in some respects. Not as many people are telling those in front of them to sit down in wrestling.
It’s hard to think of worse venue in the Big Ten right now. Penn State and Northwestern are two that come to mind, but that’s about it.
And it’s a shame because it doesn’t have to be this way.
Television is certainly a factor because some of the tip-off times, like 9 p.m. for example, or a bunch of 8 p.m. starts, is annoying and can be an inconvenience.
But every team has to deal with it. So, you just deal with it and appreciate the money that television generates.
It’s easy to find excuses for why not to attend games, but Iowa’s setup just makes it easier.
The current Iowa team is 7-3, but has lost its last three games, including a 73-53 beat-down in Ames this past Thursday.
Iowa is learning the hard way after a 7-0 start that life without Luka Garza will be difficult at times.
The team needs all the help it can get, including a better home-court environment, and that starts with more energy from the student section.
The Iowa students, obviously, are sending a message that attending men’s basketball games isn’t a priority for many of them.
It didn’t help that Iowa’s first six games were against mid-level nonconference opponents that really had no chance of winning.
Students did show up for the Illinois game, but that was also the Big Ten home opener against arguably Iowa’s biggest rival in men’s basketball.
If that isn’t enough to get students to the arena, then what would be?
The program under Fran McCaffery has come a long way since he replaced Todd Lickliter has head coach in 2010.
It was easy to understand why attendance dropped during Lickliter’s three seasons as head coach because the product on the court wasn’t very good, and because his slow and deliberate style of offense was hard to watch, especially when losing.
Under Fran McCaffery, on the other hand, Iowa plays up tempo on offense and now makes the NCAA Tournament on a somewhat regular basis.
And yet, it still takes a lot to fill the arena.
Another problem with having a disconnect with the students is that they will make up a chunk of the fan base once they leave college and join the adult world.
Iowa has to acknowledge that its current setup at Carver-Hawkeye Arena isn’t working.
Again, it wouldn’t take much effort to move the students courtside, nor would it be a huge hit financially to let them in free when compared to the financial loss caused by students not attending games.
At least give it a try for one season and see what kind of impact it has on student attendance.
Just try something.