Leistikow: 5 topics with Iowa AD Gary Barta, who says 'all systems go' for full Kinnick Stadium

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The last time Iowa hosted a football game at Kinnick Stadium without fan limitations was Nov. 23, 2019, in a 19-10 win against Illinois.

Barring an unexpected turn in COVID-19 numbers, the next time will be Sept. 4 when the Hawkeyes host Indiana to open their 2021 schedule.

“All systems go. We are preparing for and planning for 100% capacity,” Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said in an interview Friday with the Des Moines Register. “I say that, because the Big Ten is now (deferring) to local decision-making. The state of Iowa, we’re making great progress. The infection rates are way down, hospitalization rates are way down.

“I’m really excited.”

While that has always been the hope for Barta, this is by far the most confident he has been in bringing fans back to Kinnick in droves. Last season, the Big Ten made the decision to play an abbreviated season inside empty stadiums (except for player families, school officials and limited media) amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

More:2021 Iowa football kickoff times announced, including Iowa State and Wisconsin

Iowa has been selling season tickets for a while, watching the COVID numbers and hoping it won't have to restrict attendance. Barta was pleased to report that the renewal rate was around 90% from 2019 season ticketholders. And in a signal of the excitement from the Hawkeye fan base, student ticket sales have been way ahead of their traditional pace.

Iowa has already sold 4,400 season tickets to returning students; the student section seats about 9,000. New students, who typically make up the majority of student-ticket sales, can start buying season tickets Tuesday.

"Clearly, students can’t wait to get into Kinnick,” Barta said. “… I’m just excited for all of our fans, because I know it was a hard year.

“Watching past games, when I see them on Big Ten Network … I just start to get so excited about hearing AC/DC and the players coming down the tunnel.

“It’s getting real, and I can’t wait.”

Here are four more mostly related topics that Barta and I discussed Friday.

Gary Barta waves to the UI Stead Family Children's Hospital in a November 2019 game against Minnesota. "The Wave" with a full stadium could be returning in just a few months.

On the expected mask requirements at Kinnick Stadium ...

Barta said if Iowa was playing its first game Saturday, fans who have been vaccinated would have no mask requirements to come to Kinnick. The university would “recommend” mask use for those who aren’t vaccinated.

While there may be some other safety protocols in place, the idea is to have as normal of a season as possible.

“The biggest thing from my perspective is fans respect each other,” Barta said. “If a fan wants to wear a mask, please respect that fan. If a fan doesn’t want to wear a mask, respect that fan. That’s kind of where we are in society as well.”

On 2:30 kicks and the Penn State game MAYBE being at night ...

Seven kickoff times for 2021 were announced Thursday, with the Hawkeyes learning four of their five start times on the road. Three of the seven home games were revealed, and all were in the most popular time slot (according to feedback Barta hears from fans), 2:30 p.m. CT. The Indiana opener on Sept. 4; Kent State on Sept. 18; and Purdue on Oct. 16 for homecoming will be 2:30 kickoffs. That time slot allows ample time for tailgating and helps many fans traveling from a distance to make it a one-day trip.

Recall that TV networks have the majority of control over kick times, so the 2:30 barrage was mostly good luck.

“We certainly follow (TV's) lead; 2:30 I know will make a good number of our fans happy,” Barta said. “I’m sure there are some who wish it were different.”

More:June recruiting bonanza is about to begin. Here's how Iowa football got ready for it.

On that note, one of Iowa’s four home games without a start time is Oct. 9 vs. Penn State, which was earmarked for a Fox or Fox Sports 1 telecast. Barta said he has not been informed of a kickoff time. However, he sounded optimistic that it would be under the lights. Three Big Ten matchups have already been assigned morning or afternoon kick times; the only other potential marquee Big Ten game that day without a kick time is Michigan at Nebraska.

Iowa has designated Penn State as the Black and Gold Spirit Game (aka “stripe-out”), which always pops best at night. Iowa's last four home games against Penn State (2010, 2012, 2017 and 2019) started at 6:30 p.m. or later.

“I look at other games and remind myself that … night games against Penn State have a pretty strong history,” Barta said. “And I’m sure our television partners have kept an eye on that, too. So, Fox will make the decision. I think it has a great chance to be a night game, but they haven’t told us that yet.”

Iowa hosted night games in 2017 and 2019 against Penn State; could 2021 be next? It sure sounds promising.

On the impact of a full stadium on the athletics budget …

Though the fiscal year doesn’t end until June 30, Barta said the projected shortfall in the athletics budget would likely be between $45 million and $50 million. Initially, the fears were in the $75 million range. As part of the cost-cutting measures, three men's sports have been eliminated (gymnastics, swimming and diving, tennis) after this year. Women's swimming was cut but has since been permanently reinstated.

Athletics is borrowing $50 million from the university’s main campus as part of its recovery plan. Barta had initially outlined a 10- to 15-year goal to pay back that loan, but if Iowa can continue its hot start on ticket sales and be regularly close to full capacity at Kinnick (69,250) this fall, it can chop away quickly at that debt.

Football ticket sales alone bring in roughly $25 million in revenues, and full schedules in football and basketball equate to more income from TV rights deals.

“It makes a huge difference with a capital H,” Barta said. “It’s clearly critical. Having a full season with football and basketball is important.

“We don’t expect 100% financial return in one year. Let’s fill Kinnick up, and I know that’ll make all my decision-making related to the budget much easier.”

Three-time national champion and two-time Hodge Trophy winner Spencer Lee and the Iowa wrestling team was honored at an April 17 practice at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes won their first NCAA title since 2010 in March.

On the success of Iowa sports in the 2020-21 academic year …

The Hawkeye athletics program wound up winning five Big Ten titles in a school year that had so many uncertainties amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Barta said the department has internally referred to this as the "year of champions."

The Hawkeyes won indoor and outdoor men’s track and field titles under Joey Woody; won the women’s gymnastics regular-season title under Larissa Libby; won the women’s soccer tournament under Dave DiIanni; and, led by Spencer Lee, took the Big Ten and NCAA wrestling titles under Tom Brands.

Five Big Ten titles are easily the most in Barta’s tenure, which began in 2006. It’s the most at Iowa in 39 years, since it won five in 1981-82 — football; field hockey regular season and tournament; wrestling; men’s swimming and diving.

This year’s five Big Ten titles don’t count field hockey’s Final Four run; women’s basketball’s appearances in the Big Ten title game and NCAA Sweet 16; and men’s basketball being ranked in the national top 10 most of the season and having the national player of the year in Luka Garza.

More:Leistikow: The most mind-boggling statistics of Luka Garza's historic Iowa basketball career

Barta said a university video will be released soon to commemorate athletics’ accomplishments.

“Early during the pandemic, student-athletes literally had to train in their apartments or find creative ways to work out in their hometowns,” Barta said. “And when they did come back, with the testing protocols, literally they had to give up their social lives this year.

“When you take all that into account … it’s truly amazing. And throw in there, we had a Rhodes Scholar (in track and field’s Marissa Mueller). It was an amazing year. I think it will be one for the ages.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.