IOWA CITY — There’s a renewed enthusiasm surrounding the Iowa men’s basketball program, and fans, boosters and athletics officials have taken notice.
Attendance and revenue is on the rise. The team has a winning record, and the program has signed two of the nation’s top 100 recruits. With an 11-9 overall record and a 3-4 mark through a tough opening slate of Big Ten games, Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta cautiously said “the arrow is pointing up.”
“Anecdotally, I look out over the arena and I see that we’re improving, we’re growing,” Barta said. “It makes sense because it’s a fun product to watch. We’re having more success.”
Last year Iowa’s attendance increased by nearly 23 percent during Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery’s first season. It was the fifth-largest jump among NCAA schools. Through 13 home games this year, Iowa has averaged 11,290 in paid attendance, just 51 fans per games shy of last year’s pace.
But there’s a positive caveat for Iowa. Last year’s totals through 13 games included six Big Ten games. This year’s totals include three, and Iowa’s attendance average increases by about 1,500 fans from non-conference to league play.
It’s also paying off at the cash register. After a six-year decline in basketball ticket sales, Iowa rebounded with a surge last year. According to documents provided by Iowa through the state’s open-records law, the school earned nearly $2.24 million in ticket sales last season, McCaffery’s first as head coach. That’s up from $1.9 million in 2009-10.
“I’ll wait until the year end to really see what that increase is, but it’s sort of the chicken-and-the egg,” Barta said. “The excitement in the arena helps the team play better, and the team playing better creates more excitement in the arena.”
As attendance continues to surge, the school — and McCaffery — is targeting specifically to the students. The school has designed six-game ticket packages aimed at the student base and is giving away student tickets to next week’s Iowa-Minnesota game.
“You need the student body,” McCaffery said. “You need the students, the Hawk’s Nest being as rowdy and as engaged as possible.
“We see it. We’ve seen it on the road. We saw it clearly at Purdue the other day. So what I like to do is make this an impossible place to win. So I would just encourage our students to get their tickets. If they’re not using them, give them to their buddies.”
Iowa has a proud tradition in basketball with 22 NCAA Tournament berths, which stood as the third-most among Big Ten schools in 2006. After four consecutive losing seasons, five Big Ten schools now have more NCAA appearances.
But this squad has ended a few nasty streaks this year, including a nine-game slide at Wisconsin and two six-game losing streaks to Minnesota and Michigan. Two Big Ten victories came against ranked opponents and only three of Iowa’s remaining 10 games are against top 25 teams.
The team’s improvement, coupled with McCaffery’s intensity, has drawn Iowa supporters back to Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City businessman Mike Gatens said.
“We’ve got a guy that will get it done,” said Mike Gatens, a former Hawkeye under Lute Olson and father of Iowa senior Matt Gatens. “Not a lot of coaches can do what (McCaffery’s) doing with this team. He’s very, very good at what he does.”
McCaffery’s fire has spilled over to the court. He’s earned seven technical fouls this year and grabbed headlines for slamming a chair following a technical at Michigan State. The incident drew national attention and prompted a letter from Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany.
Barta said he’s received “incredible feedback” on the subject, many of which called for McCaffery’s firing.
“I got just as much feedback and just as passionate about the fact that I didn’t support him enough,” said Barta, who later added, “we’ve moved on. It’s over.”
“Many of the things that I love about Fran is his style of play. I love his passion. You’ll never meet a coach with more passion. That passion, once in a while, it can bubble over a little bit. But I know how much he loves his guys, I see it on a daily basis.
“He’s doing an incredible job of recruiting. He and his staff have a great work ethic. So I’m very, very pleased with where we’re headed.”
Iowa has helped McCaffery improve with an earnest recruiting budget. Iowa basketball spent $147,593 recruiting in McCaffery’s first year, about $71,000 more than what was spent during former Coach Todd Lickliter’s final year at Iowa.
McCaffery and Barta both say there was no recruiting budget increase. It was simply about allowing McCaffery and his staff to pound the pavement every allowable day. That also has paid off.
Iowa’s signing class in fall 2011 included a pair of Rivals’ top 100 players from the Sioux City area in center Adam Woodbury (42) and point guard Mike Gesell (96). Iowa also signed a trio of three-star players. Part of McCaffery’s strategy he said in November — and reiterated on Monday — was to attend every summer league game that included Woodbury and Gesell, who play for Iowa-based Martin Brothers. That meant using every method of transportation, from commercial to private planes.
“Some schools take private plans everywhere,” McCaffery said. “We take private planes when we have to; that might be one area where we’ve had a discussion. Do you need more private planes? Does it really help you? A lot of guys do it because it’s a lot more convenient. Do you really need it?
“I don’t think we ever want to feel like we’re wasting money. I can get on a commercial flight to Las Vegas and be there for three days and get on a flight that goes directly from Las Vegas to Orlando and get my job done. And that’s what we do.”
As the revenue increases, so will the budget, Barta said.
“What we talked about it is, within reason and with approval, we need to go out and recruit to the best of our ability,” Barta said. “We’ll look at it over a three-year period eventually and see where we need to be to have success, and we’ll compare it against our budget, we’ll compare it against our peers. But sometimes you have to spend some money to make some money. As ticket revenue rises, an expense budget that goes up a little bit, it probably makes good business sense.”
Iowa already has equaled last year’s win total. With at least 11 games remaining, the Hawkeyes could earn a winning season for the first time since 2007, Steve Alford’s final year. It’s likely the financial numbers will improve. Barta remains optimistic about the present but prefers to evaluate the program after the season, not in January.
“I observe daily and evaluate annually,” Barta said. “What I mean by that is, yes, I see (the improvement) as well. But I want to wait until the year is over to really sit back and think about, ‘OK, where did we end?’ If we ended higher, which it certainly appears that we’re going to, how much higher? What can we do to learn from the growth this year and what can we do to make it even better next year?”
BY THE NUMBERS (SOURCE: UNIVERSITY OF IOWA)
BASKETBALL RECRUITING EXPENSES
BASKETBALL TICKET REVENUE
BASKETBALL PAID ATTENDANCE (SEASON AVERAGE)
BASKETBALL PAID ATTENDANCE (AVERAGE THROUGH 13 HOME GAMES)
NOTE: The University of Iowa operates on a fiscal year that runs from July 1 through June 30.