University of Iowa senior Keenan Davis was thrilled the first time he saw the team’s former indoor practice facility, commonly known as “The Bubble.”
“I thought it was awesome,” said Davis, a wide receiver from Cedar Rapids. “It didn’t look like a barn or anything, so I thought it was cool.”
Davis later discovered the facility literally was cool in the winter because athletes had little protection from the elements.
“In the summer you’re just dying of heat,” Davis said. “During the winter you’re freezing.”
The Bubble’s limitations placed Iowa at a competitive disadvantage with its Big Ten Conference peers. By spring 2012, the 27-year-old practice facility was the league’s oldest.
It was small and the inflated, domed roof prevented the team from working on kicking drills. Both Coach Kirk Ferentz and quarterback James Vandenberg complained it was difficult to breathe in the facility.
Ferentz feared The Bubble’s lack of aesthetic appeal would cost the program recruits and instead send them to Big Ten competitors. Nine of the league’s other 11 programs had either built or committed to building new football practice facilities since 2000.
The University of Michigan, for instance, spent $26.1 million in 2009 on a 104,000-square-foot facility with two fields. It wasn’t until Ferentz and Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta toured other facilities that they realized how far they had fallen behind.
“I’m probably at fault there because I tend to focus more on people than I do things,” Ferentz said. “So I’ll take the bullet on that one — probably should have been advocating for that longer, further back, because ... players are impressed by facilities.”
The program began raising money for the facility in 2008 and shovels hit the dirt in October 2011 as part of a $55 million construction project. The first phase, which was completed in July, includes a fixed roof and a 102,000-square foot surface.
There are standard filming positions and a field large enough for 115 players to practice without bumping into one another unintentionally.
The athletics department will bid the project’s second phase this winter with a 2014 completion date. It includes a new strength and conditioning area, locker rooms, coaching offices and a walkway for fans on gameday.
The department hopes to raise $35 million privately, and it has secured $22 million in gifts so far. Athletics will pay for the rest with a $20 million short-term loan and not sell bonds.
“The goal is to be done in time for the 2014 football season,” Barta said. “Right now we’re still on track.
“Ultimately it’s designing it and making sure we can pay for it.”
THE ARMS RACE
A pristine practice facility showcases programs to recruits, and is part of what former Iowa Athletics Director Bob Bowlsby described as a college athletics “arms race.” Bowlsby, now the current Big 12 Commissioner, once told The Gazette, “The only thing worse than being in the arms race is not being in the arms race.”
That’s more true now than ever.
During the 2005 fiscal year — Bowlsby’s final full year at Iowa — the athletics department earned $61.67 million, according to documents filed with the NCAA and made available to The Gazette via state open-records law. For the 2011 fiscal year, those numbers soared to more than $93.35 million.
Yet that ranks just fifth in the Big Ten.
In 2011 football numbers, Iowa’s direct football revenue ($44.5 million) ranked sixth, far behind Ohio State ($79.34 million) and Michigan ($70.3 million) in football revenue. Iowa’s neighborhood includes Michigan State ($45.04 million) and Wisconsin ($43.29 million).
Iowa’s revenue was 47.6 percent of all department funds, and indirectly Iowa football specifically brings in $17.92 million from television deals and contributions. It also plays a major role in non-specific revenue from the Big Ten/NCAA, contributions and royalties.
PHILOSOPHIES AND PRIORITIES
Iowa’s philosophies and priorities have changed over the last decade to keep pace with its competitors.
Over the last three seasons, Iowa has raised general public football ticket prices by a combined $7 per game. Iowa has budgeted more than $22.86 million in football ticket revenue for 2012, up from $21.79 million from 2012.
In 2002, Iowa earned $9.78 million in ticket sales.
Ten years ago, capital investment was 5 percent of the department’s budget. Now it’s 18 percent, with much of it centered on the $150 million-plus committed to football-related projects since 2006.
Fundraising was 11 percent of its budget, and now it amounts to 20 percent.
“That sort of grew as our investment in our facilities grew,” Barta said. “Our reliance on fundraising grew as well.
Iowa’s athletics department became self-sustaining in 2008. It’s one of five Big Ten public schools that does not receive institutional support.
That changes the governance structure around athletics’ financial decisions, University of Iowa President Sally Mason said.“We basically said, you’re going to get no general education fund money, so you get no tuition dollars,” Mason said. “In fact, we take tuition dollars from you and you get no state appropriation dollars. You have to earn your keep.”