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Gary Barta says there's 'wiggle room' that may allow for fans at Hawkeye football games

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said Thursday there’s “a little bit of wiggle room” that may allow for some football fans to attend Big Ten Conference games this fall.

“Right now, I’m going into it as if we won’t have any fans, but I would be excited if that did change,” Barta said.

“I would love it if, at some point, the environment allowed and the decision was made to allow some fans.”

The Big Ten’s initial decision for a fall football season that will begin Oct. 23 was that no one other than family members of the players would be seated inside stadiums during its nine-game season. Barta said there has been no discussion of a specific cutoff date by which that decision could be reconsidered, only that “as the season went on” there was the potential that the league could change course.

More:A game-by-game analysis of Iowa's revised Big Ten football schedule

Other conferences are allowing a limited number of fans to attend football games this fall. Iowa State has plans to permit up to 15,000 people at its home game Saturday, for example.

Barta indicated that won’t necessarily sway the Big Ten’s thinking, since the league has established its own medical protocols. But certainly if games are safely held elsewhere with fans in the stands, there will be pressure for the Big Ten to follow suit or to explain why not.

The conference is extending the ban on fans to marching bands, cheerleaders and others who are usually part of the atmosphere of a college football game. The Hawkeyes are scheduled to open their season at Purdue, with a first home game Oct. 30 or 31 vs. Northwestern. There will be four games at Kinnick Stadium in total.

One of them will be against Nebraska, and Barta said “it wouldn’t shock me” to see that game played on the Friday after Thanksgiving, as has been tradition in the rivalry. Iowa was originally set to host Wisconsin that weekend, but the revised schedule pushed the matchup with the Badgers back to Dec. 11 or 12.

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta speaks after a NCAA Big Ten Conference women's basketball game, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Iowa and Nebraska are both open to playing on Black Friday again, Barta said, although no one from the Big Ten has yet asked them to move the date of that game. The Big Ten will be playing weekly football games on Fridays this season, but those matchups haven’t been announced.

The Big Ten’s return to football, after originally saying the fall schedule would be pushed back to the winter or spring over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, was predicated on daily testing being available to all of its athletes, coaches and any other on-field personnel.

That process began Thursday at Iowa. James Torner, a professor of epidemiology in the university’s College of Public Health, has been named the Chief Infection Officer for the COVID-19 testing of Hawkeye athletes. Each Big Ten school was required to name one.

That means Torner will be calling the league offices each afternoon to report that day’s results. He said at Thursday’s meeting of the Presidential Committee on Athletics that he also has to provide the current testing results for the entire campus and Johnson County when calling in.

The football team is the only one at Iowa going through this process for now, since it’s scheduled to be the first to compete. Other sports will undergo the same protocol as they near the beginning of their seasons.

Big Ten schools are limited to 170 members of their football program that can be tested each week, Barta said. By each Sunday, Iowa must send in a list of who it will test that week, including players, coaches and anyone else who is on the practice field.

Barta on sports being eliminated: It would cost $110 million to endow them all

There has been a strong push for Barta to reverse his decision to eliminate four Hawkeye sports programs ever since he made that announcement Aug. 21. A group of alumni called Save Iowa Sports has even raised $2.7 million in pledges in an effort to get Barta to retain men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s gymnastics and men’s tennis.

Previously:Save Iowa Sports group has a plan, and believes university president Bruce Harreld will listen

Barta was firm again Thursday in saying that there is no chance of that happening. The four sports are set to be cut after this academic year, a move Barta said is necessary in order to save $5 million annually as his athletic department faces a loss of $40 million to $60 million in revenue this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Barta called the fundraising effort “very admirable,” but said it is not nearly enough. He said it would cost $70 million to endow the swimming teams, and $20 million each for gymnastics and tennis. Endowments would provide annual payouts that would cover the cost of those sports permanently.

Barta said that reality “has been expressed to various individuals” who have tried to keep the four Hawkeye programs.

The Save Iowa Sports group said Thursday that it has a plan for financing Olympic sports at the university in the long-term that would result in a cost savings. The group is hoping to be able to pitch that idea to someone in the Iowa administration, but Barta and president Bruce Harreld — who on Thursday announced his plan to retire — have said the entire amount of money would need to be raised first before any such discussions occur.

“The deficit is just so large and so deep that the amount of money that we would need to change that decision, it’s extraordinary,” Barta said.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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