IOWA CITY — Drake and Iowa share a basketball rivalry that dates to 1909 and boasts only one annual interruption since 1965.
But Saturday's game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena could be the finale between the in-state rivals. The schools don’t have a future contract, and it’s likely they won’t continue the home-and-home arrangement as in their previous 65 meetings.
“To be honest with you, I haven’t brought myself full circle to look at it that way,” Drake Athletics Director Sandy Hatfield Clubb said. “Certainly it could be.”
Both Iowa and Iowa State have declined to renew basketball deals with Drake and Northern Iowa beyond this season. Iowa has played every in-state school annually and rotated sites since 1990. With the exception of a two-year break in the mid-1990s, UNI and Iowa State have alternated sites with one another every year since 1989. Iowa State and Drake share the state’s oldest continuous basketball rivalry at 170 games, playing every season from 1908 onward.
But it’s possible — perhaps even likely — the schools will continue to play but at a neutral site. Both Iowa and Iowa State are interested in holding a weekend of games sometime between Dec. 1 and Dec. 17 of 2012 involving the state’s four schools at Des Moines’ Wells Fargo Arena. It would involve the larger schools competing against the smaller schools, although it is unclear whether it consists of one or two games for each school.
Iowa and Iowa State would continue to play independently once each year, as would Drake and Northern Iowa in Missouri Valley Conference competition.
“It certainly changes the dynamic of what we’re doing now,” Hatfield Clubb said. “That’s not to say it couldn’t be a great event. We enjoy the status, the relationship that we have now. We prefer not to make a change, but if that would be the only way we can play Iowa and Iowa State, then I promise you that we will make absolutely everything out of that event to make it something that our fans and students can appreciate and be part of.”
Hatfield Clubb and Northern Iowa Athletics Director Troy Dannen prefer to keep the status quo. Both schools post standing room only crowds when their large-conference neighbors compete at their arenas. However the McLeod Center lists capacity at 6,650 and Drake’s Knapp Center holds 7,152. Both arenas combined are smaller than Iowa State’s Hilton Coliseum (14,356) and Carver-Hawkeye Arena (15,500).
UNI averaged 4,767 tickets sold per game last year. The attendance at this year’s Iowa-UNI game was listed at 6,834. Losing that annual gate could burden UNI’s bottom line, but that’s not the primary issue to Dannen. A neutral-site series in Des Moines likely will have sponsorships exceeding the revenue loss for UNI or Drake.
“I think on the list of reasons why I don’t want to lose this series, finance is at about the bottom,” Dannen said. “We’ll replace the game. The revenue from the Iowa or Iowa State game is maybe $15,000 to $25,000 more than an average game. It’s not a major financial issue.
“I know that some of the alternatives that are out there may actually be a net positive financially. But you lose something to gain something financially. That something is home-and-home series with Big Ten and Big 12 schools.
“Unless there’s some external force that is applied from some direction, I don’t see the home-and-home series continuing.”
Iowa State Athletics Director Jamie Pollard said the schools are “still working through a lot of scenarios” regarding neutral-site games in Des Moines. A basketball classic among the four schools potentially could vault Des Moines into a future men’s NCAA Tournament site.
“I’m excited about it because it’s something that since I’ve been here, at least my first couple of years, a lot of people were talking about that and just didn’t have a lot of momentum for that,” Pollard said. “Now we have some more momentum to pull it off. So I think we’re all committed to trying to figure out if we can do that.”
But there is bitterness among the UNI fan base for the possible changes, Dannen said. The Panthers are the state’s most successful basketball program recently. UNI has advanced to five NCAA tournaments since 2004, more than the other three schools combined. UNI has beaten Iowa five of six in Cedar Falls and Iowa State five of six overall.
Dannen, however, has cautioned those fans who’d rather discard the series than give in to Iowa or Iowa State.
“My fan base reaction so far — those who have gotten a hold of me — has basically been the heck with Iowa and Iowa State,” Dannen said. “If they don’t want to play you home-and-home, then don’t play them at all. I’ve been trying to remind them of how shortsighted that is. Why would I, if this series can continue, why would I give up any chance to play Iowa and Iowa State because they don’t want to play on my terms? The idea of a one-game deal in Des Moines is a whole lot better than not playing at all.”
Former Drake Coach and Iowa player Keno Davis, the son of longtime Iowa and Drake Coach Tom Davis, concurred with Dannen’s assessment. Davis, who will call the game as a color analyst with the Big Ten Network, described the in-state home-and-home series as “special” and helps the smaller schools financially. But playing Iowa and Iowa State annually is more important than hosting the schools, he said.
“I think if you’re at Drake, you’d probably rather have them come to your arena every-other year,” Davis said. “But you’d rather them play at a neutral site than not play at all or just play them in Iowa City. So you understand that you’ve got a great opportunity to play them each year and you want to make sure that continues in whatever fashion for whatever happens.”
Although she’d prefer to continue the games in their present format, Hatfield Clubb said there’s too much history among the programs to discard the annual series.“With regard to our view, obviously we very much have enjoyed with Iowa State over 100 years worth of regular play on each other’s campus, and probably 60 years worth of continuous play with Iowa,” Hatfield Clubb said. “Obviously there’s a long-standing tradition and history which Drake has very much enjoyed. Ideally for our students in particular and our fans to have those two schools play in our arena on a regular basis is really a great experience that we’d hate to lose.”