IOWA CITY — Troy Dannen called it a “bittersweet” moment.
Northern Iowa’s athletics director did not join in the excitement of his statewide colleagues Thursday with the announcement of a “Big Four Classic.” The state’s four Division I men’s basketball programs will meet in an doubleheader event on Dec. 15 at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. This year Iowa will play UNI, and Iowa State will face Drake. Iowa will play Drake and UNI will play Iowa State in 2013.
The inaugural event is scheduled for four years and each school’s fan base receives one-quarter of the 16,110-seat arena. The schools will have between 2,700 and 3,500 tickets to sell and the profits are split four ways.
It’s a more lucrative event for UNI and Drake than hosting Iowa and Iowa State every-other year. But cash-strapped Northern Iowa is giving up more than just money, Dannen said. It’s giving up tradition and playing major-conference, large-school rivals on its home floor.
“This has never been our first choice,” Dannen said. “The fact of the matter is we have not been, never have been in a position to control the scheduling. My job for UNI is make sure we have the best possible opportunity. If we’re not going to have a home-and-home series, the best possible outcome for us is this event.
“Now that the event is put together, I think it will be a great event. But it still is somewhat bittersweet and the price to pay for this event — in UNI’s eyes — is pretty steep.”
The event will end the annual home-and-home series among the four programs, which began in 1988, when Iowa and Northern Iowa began rotating home sites. The Cyclones have played UNI all but two years since 1980. Iowa and Drake have played every season but one since 1965 and rotated sites each season, save a four-year stretch from 1978-1981.
Iowa and Iowa State still will play home-and-home as part of the Cy-Hawk series. As members of the Missouri Valley Conference, Drake and Northern Iowa will continue to play at least twice each year.
For Iowa and Iowa State officials, the event signifies a chance to form a premier event in the state capital. The game order and times are not set to accommodate a potential television partner. Officials have discussed adding an event sponsor, which would generate more revenue.
“I’ve been excited ever since we talked about the concept,” Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said. “I think it’s going to be a great event for the state and a great event for all the four schools and fans. I’m looking forward to it.
“We went into this with the idea and the principle that we wanted it to be an absolute partnership and split four ways. It’s a four-year agreement. We play each team twice. We’re each going to host one year. We’re going to split all revenues equally four ways. We’re going to split the house four ways so fans will have an equal opportunity to purchase the tickets. We just went into this with a partnership mentality with the idea of splitting it equally among the four.”
Officials envision the “Big Four Classic” will mirror the “Crossroads Classic” in Indianapolis last December. Purdue, Indiana, Notre Dame and Butler sold out a doubleheader at Conseco Fieldhouse.
“Iowa State looks forward to its participation in the inaugural ‘Big Four Classic’ in Des Moines,” Iowa State Athletics Director Jamie Pollard said. “Our state has a rich basketball history. The opportunity to create a single showcase event in our state’s capital city has been discussed for years and we are very excited to finally see this happen. We have participated in a number of events with the Des Moines Convention & Visitors’ Bureau and Wells Fargo Arena in the past and they have been very popular with Cyclone fans.”
Iowa and Iowa State officials cited the need for greater scheduling flexibility to help make the event possible. Both the Big Ten and Big 12 have extended their league schedules to 18 games. The Big Ten has an annual challenge with the ACC and a new scheduling agreement with the Pac-12.
“I knew that I needed to go about my scheduling a little bit differently,” Barta said. “So we started with talking with the other state schools: Iowa State, UNI and Drake. I didn’t want to stop playing the state schools; that wasn’t an option that I was interested in. But I wanted to see if we could find something that’s created as close to a win-win as we could.
“I think we can accommodate a situation where financially we can all come out as good or better as we would at home.”
Perhaps the greatest historical casualty is the Iowa State-Drake series. The schools have played 170 times, meeting every calendar year since 1908. It’s undetermined if those schools will continue to play at Hilton Coliseum in seasons when they don’t compete at Wells Fargo Arena.
As for Northern Iowa, it won’t play on the road at either Iowa or Iowa State when it’s not playing in Des Moines.
“We’re not interested in that,” Dannen said. “We’re going to continue to pursue some home-and-homes with power conference schools. We’re negotiating with a Big 12 school right now. We’re going to continue to try and find those opportunities.“Frankly, we look ourselves ... we’re above a buy game. We’re above being Mississippi Valley State. We’ve established that, and it’s time for us that if these teams aren’t going to be available, we’ll find better games to suit our needs and our needs are getting a schedule strong enough that when the NCAA comes along we’ll have a non-conference resume that’s worthy of an at-large bid.”