By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – A Hawkeye fan who lives near Des Moines asked an interesting question about Thursday’s men’s basketball game between Iowa and Indiana at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
He asked why he should attend a game that starts at 8 p.m. on a Thursday night in an arena that is poorly designed and incredibly dull from an atmosphere standpoint?
He didn’t say it in those exact words, but that was his message; asking why with yet another late start in an arena that will likely be at least one-third empty, should he go to the trouble of watching the game in person.
He pointed out that it would take about seven hours to do it, including a 230-mile round trip with most of the driving in the dark.
He also said the line for ice cream in Carver-Hawkeye Arena probably would be about 50 deep despite the arena being far from full, and that the lack of a middle concourse would make the climb from his seat to the concession stand grueling to say the least.
And he reminded me that Iowa is just 1-3 in conference play and showing the same old weaknesses on defense.
I thought about saying in my response that Iowa has the nation’s leading scorer in sophomore forward Keegan Murray, who just two years ago was attending prep school in hopes of getting a Power 5 scholarship offer, and that Iowa plays at a fast pace and scores a lot of points, and that Iowa is 11-4 overall, but in desperate need of a conference win, and that having a strong home-court advantage could help get a win.
But he’s aware of all of that, and yet, the energy, excitement and commitment that is needed to attend the game in person as a Hawkeye fan from central Iowa just isn’t there.
That’s a concern because this fan is far from an outlier.
The combination of late starts, an inconvenient layout of the arena, and a poor start to conference play has created a perfect storm for apathy.
The Iowa students are also still on semester break, although, they haven’t shown much support so far this season.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery was asked at a Tuesday press conference if it’s frustrating seeing the arena not as full as it could be do to some factors that are beyond his control.
“Yeah, but I think it’s like you said, that’s when the games are, so you can’t complain about it,” McCaffery said. “It would be really foolish of me to complain about that.
“I don’t have any control over whether the fans can show up or not. You know, 8 p.m. on a Thursday night is tough for someone who wants to drive over from Des Moines. We all recognize that. We wish they could be better, but that’s when the games are.”
My friend from the Des Moines area is exactly to whom McCaffery was referring.
My friend is reluctant to take the time and to spend the money and deal with the inconvenience of attending the game in person when he could watch it from the comfort of his home.
And it’s hard to argue with that position.
The problem is that this young and developing Iowa team needs all the help it can get, including having a strong home-court advantage.
However, it’s hard to create a hostile environment for the visiting team when the arena is at least one-third empty.
Iowa is sort of in a Catch 22 dilemma in that it needs a packed arena to help get signature wins at home, but it’s hard to pack the arena without any signature wins.
Iowa’s two best wins at this stage were at Virginia in late November and against Utah State on Dec. 18 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota,
But neither team is currently ranked, and Virginia only has a 9-6 record.
The influence of television is far reaching and much of it is positive, especially from a financial standpoint.
The downside to television, however, is 8 p.m. starts on a work day, or in this case, an 8:07 p.m. tip-off to Thursday’s game. A person who lives in central Iowa wouldn’t get home until after midnight and that’s just too late for some people.
Iowa versus Indiana looks pretty competitive on paper.
The Hoosiers are 12-3 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten under first-year head coach Mike Woodson, and have won five of their last six games.
Indiana is a perfect 11-0 in home games, but is 0-3 in true road games.
So again, home-court advantage could provide Iowa with a huge boost if enough fans show up.
Most fans weren’t allowed to attend games last season due to the global pandemic, and some fans probably got in the habit of watching from home, and some habits are hard to break.
It also didn’t help that Iowa lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season, even with All-America center Luka Garza leading the way.
There wasn’t a lot of momentum heading into this season, and Iowa’s first six games were blowouts at home against vastly inferior competition.
You feel bad for the players and coaches, but you also can’t blame fans for not wanting to attend the games under the circumstances.
The only thing Fran McCaffery and his players can do to help create more fan interest is win games.
UI officials, on the other hand, could takes steps in addressing fan apathy by allowing students in for free, beginning with Thursday’s game, and by having more points of purchase at the concessions stands.
One way to compensate for a late start is to make the game experience more appealing.
But that’s proving to be much easier said than done.
Iowa vs. Indiana
When: Thursday, 8:07 p.m.
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Radio: Hawkeye Radio Network
Series: Indiana holds a 106-78 advantage in the series, dating back to 1909. Two of the last nine contests have been decided in overtime in Iowa City, with the Hawkeyes winning both (2017, 2019). Iowa leads, 46-43, in games played at Iowa City, holding a 21-13 advantage in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa has won nine of the last 14 meetings in Iowa City.