Kinnick Stadium and Wrigley Field are two old peas in a pod.
They tug their fans’ heartstrings. They’re venues that lots of those fans visit faithfully no matter how the Hawkeyes or Cubs are playing because of their love of the teams and traditions, the ambience and game-day experience.
But even those fan bases have limits.
Entering this weekend, the Cubs were averaging 33,236 fans per game at Wrigley. Most Major League Baseball franchises would take that with pleasure. But for the Cubs, it’s a fifth-straight season of declining attendance. They played to an average of 40,743 in 2008.
Not coincidentally, the Cubs won 97 games that year. (Honest!) This is the team’s fourth-straight season of lousy baseball.
Iowa football’s situation isn’t similar, in attendance drop-off or losing. The Hawkeyes tumbled to 4-8 in 2012 after four straight winning years, yet were just 780 tickets from selling out the season for the third-consecutive time. But nothing is taken for granted because football is so vital to an entire major-college athletic program.
Iowa has no sellouts for this season, though its Big Ten home games are very close to being so. Today’s season-opener against a good Northern Illinois team had 1,400 tickets left early this week, mostly in the student section. The general public had bought everything originally available to it other than scattered singles.
If the Hawkeyes open the season with a victory over the Huskies, many of the available seats for the remaining six home games will probably get snapped up next week. Winning is a powerful sales tool.
For ticket and merchandise sales, happy donors, and all sorts of other benefits, Iowa’s athletic department wants last year’s 4-8 to be an aberration rather than the start of something longer and drearier.
That’s because history shows there’s no such thing as long-term automatic sellouts at Iowa, or almost anywhere in sports. OK, Nebraska begs to differ. It also hasn’t had a record as poor as 4-8 in the last half-century.
History also shows once people get in the habit of doing without things like football tickets, they find they can live without them.
The Iowa men’s basketball program was ranked in the nation’s top 14 in attendance in all but one season between 1980 and 2002. It was 21st in 2013, its highest showing in the last 10 years. This season, it will approach or reach the attendance levels of those past decades.
In Kirk Ferentz’s first two years as Iowa’s coach, his program had no buzz and it showed at the gate. Iowa averaged 63,464 fans in 1999, a drop of almost 5,000 from the season before. That fell to 61,123 in 2000.
But Hawkeye football has sold out or come very close to doing so every season since 2004. The bounce from the big seasons of ‘02 and ‘03 made Kinnick the place to be, the seven-time social event of the year. That remains the case today.
The Hawkeyes lost a little of that buzz last season, but not a catastrophic amount. You can’t keep letting it get chipped away, though.
Which makes today’s game all the more important. This season, too.