Basketball wants the fans back

SCOTT MILLER

To call Iowa basketball fans starved would be kind.

With the men’s program making only three NCAA Tournament appearances in the last 10 years (2001, 2005, and 2006), famished would be a more accurate description.

But there was a time when basketball — not only football — was king on the Hawkeye campus. There was a time when the Hawkeyes consistently competed for Big Ten titles. There was a time when fans showed up in droves and sold out the arena on a nightly basis.

Lute Olson, the architect of the Hawkeyes’ 1980 Final Four squad, helped Iowa basketball regain its luster.

And in return, Olson and his players got a brand-new arena in 1983 — the head coach’s final year on campus. Iowa fans routinely packed the facility, which was dubbed Carver-Hawkeye Arena, finishing in the top-20 nationally in attendance from Olson’s 1983 squad to Steve Alford’s 2002 team.

But after 2002, attendance — and the program’s lure for fans and recruits, alike — slowly began to drop.

Even when Alford’s 2006 group — which compiled a 25-9 record and finished second in the Big Ten — had an NCAA Tournament-caliber team, the Hawkeyes averaged only 12,006 fans per night in a building meant to hold 15,500.

Recently — especially in the last two years, during which Iowa is a combined 28-36 — attendance has dipped even lower. During the 2007-08 season, the team drew only 10,761 fans per game — its lowest total in over 30 years. Last year, the number bumped up ever so slightly to 10,861.

Athletics Director Gary Barta contends this decline in attendance figures is a part of a larger national trend, saying there has been an eight-year decline in season-ticket revenue at Iowa, but a 10-year decline nationwide.

“We’re not experiencing anything different from the national trend,” he said. “We’re staying consistent with what’s happening around the country, but we don’t want to. We want to break out of it and rise above the norm. “We want to grow it back to where it was.”

Calls made by The Daily Iowan to the NCAA were not immediately returned to confirm this report.

“[Attendance is dependent] on our success level,” Lickliter said. “I think everybody likes to follow a team that is successful. … I think the Iowa fans want us to play with a competitive spirit. … We’re doing that; we’re going to continue to do that, and it’s going to lead to more winning.

Part of recapturing this enthusiasm will come when ground is broken this fall for the expansion and renovation of Carver.

“It’s something I’ve heard about for a long time, through [Alford and Lickliter],” freshman Matt Gatens said. “Hopefully, they’re going to get moving on it quickly, so [we] young guys will be able to see it while we’re here.”

The project — which will include a much larger, 8,000 square-foot weight room and a separate practice facility for men’s and women’s basketball and the volleyball team — will rely on $20 million in private funding, with the other $27 million coming from operations.

As Barta travels the state in hopes of raising this $20 million, he hasn’t seen a dip in fund-raising, despite a second-consecutive subpar season from the basketball team. In fact, he said, “We’re at, or ahead of, where I thought we would be at this time.

“We want to see this thing get back to where we’d all like it to be, and that’s competing for championships. [Boosters] know [a renovated Carver] is an important part of getting that done.”

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