Leistikow: Barta stands firm behind Ferentz despite sagging fan interest
By abstaining (at least for now) from Kinnick Stadium this fall, former Iowa football season ticketholders are closing their wallets to vote against the current state of the program.
Gary Barta, meanwhile, is doubling down on the status quo. The athletic director dug his heels into the ground Tuesday in conjunction with the release of lagging ticket sales, reiterating that Kirk Ferentz is the right guy to win back these same fans.
"We all had really high expectations last year, and the (7-6) season didn't meet those," Barta said in an interview with the Des Moines Register. "But when you step back, our foundation is still rock solid. We have terrific coaches. We have great student-athletes. And yes, we want to win more games. And we expect to win more games. But if our low point is eight wins in 2013 and seven wins in 2014, we're not that far off."
(Never mind that Iowa went 4-8 in 2012.)
But, moving ahead, and that's the story here — Barta isn't wavering on his public stance that a 17th season of Ferentz is the best chance to bring winning football back to Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes lost three times there last season, including to an Iowa State team that went 2-10. Iowa is 10-11 in home games since 2012.
In the light of Tuesday's revelation that general-public season ticket sales are expected to fall 3,000 to 5,000 (roughly 10 percent) short of last year's total, the Ferentz question came up again. Barta was pressed about the notion of "Ferentz Fatigue" among fans and whether he thought the decision not to make a coaching change hurt ticket sales.
"My response to you is, Kirk Ferentz is a proven and terrific leader, and he's won at Iowa," Barta said. "I've made it clear that I'm 100 percent behind him and I'm 100 percent behind his staff. As we went around in the I-Club circuit, certainly there are those that have decided not to renew their season tickets. However, there's a lot of positives. There were numerous people that said, 'I let go of my season tickets, but I'm still excited. I'm still going to come to games at Kinnick.' "
Some may not want to hear it, but Barta could be offering more than athletic-department spin. A lackluster 2015 lineup of home opponents, where the biggie is Minnesota, isn't helping the UI's sales pitch. Fans could justifiably be viewing 2015 as a wait-and-see season, knowing they'll have the opportunity to buy a ticket for face value (or less, on the secondary market) last-minute, then return for 2016's more attractive slate that includes Iowa State, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska.
For now, the athletic department thinks it can overcome season-ticket losses in the stands through the sale of three-game packages and single-game seats.
So, what will the final number be? And, how much does it matter?
In the large scheme of things, the loss of $2 million (a rough estimate, since Tuesday's numbers only offer an idea of how full Kinnick will get this fall) in season-ticket revenue isn't seismic considering TV-contract money alone was projected to be $34.1 million per Big Ten Conference team in 2015-16.
But, a sharply growing number of empty bleachers at Kinnick Stadium is an ominous fan-enthusiasm indicator that warrants concern. As the old business adage states, it's a lot easier to retain customers than attract new ones.
It's not impossible that Iowa's Sept. 5 opener against Illinois State will be the first Kinnick Stadium crowd to start with a "5" since 54,211 saw Iowa beat Utah State 48-7 on Sept. 21, 2002.
Of course, it was that very 2002 season that launched Iowa football into a national brand under Ferentz, then in his fourth season — with an 8-0 Big Ten record, Heisman Trophy runner-up Brad Banks and the first of two Orange Bowls.
"Whenever you have that much success, you raise expectations to a high level," Barta said. "You sort of create your own challenge by having that great success. If that's what's happened, so be it. The expectations are so high because Kirk proved that we could get there."
And Barta remains confident Ferentz's winning days aren't finished, even as he approaches his 60th birthday Aug. 1.
Will Barta be proven too stubborn or absolutely correct? Iowa's first two games will be telling. Beating ISU twice — Illinois State, then Iowa State in Ames — could entice on- or outside-the-fence fans to pull the trigger for a 7 p.m. game the following Saturday against Pittsburgh and beyond.
"In recent days, we're seeing some recruiting momentum (12 verbal commitments in two weeks). That's exciting," Barta said. "We're all trying to regain momentum wherever we can. There is not now, nor has there ever been, a lack of caring. Kirk is as passionate now as he's been since I arrived on campus."
IOWA FOOTBALL TICKET SALES BY YEAR
Data supplied by the University of Iowa in regards to season ticket sales and attendance since the 2005 season (*—as of June 19; the UI said it expects faculty and student sales to be similar to 2014, and expects a few thousand more general-public season tickets to be sold):
Year — Season ticket sales (General + faculty/staff + students) — Avg. attendance
- 2005 — 54,584 (40,456 + 3,864 + 10,264) — 70,585
- 2006 — 54,308 (40,092 + 3,684 + 10,532) —70,585
- 2007 — 54,357 (40,284 + 3,929 + 10,144) — 70,585
- 2008 — 51,985 (38,397 + 3,937 + 9,651) — 70,169
- 2009 — 51,497 (37,125 + 4,078 + 10,294) — 70,214
- 2010 — 54,620 (40,101 + 4,206 + 10,313) — 70,585
- 2011 — 55,457 (40,506 + 4,438 + 10,513) — 70,585
- 2012 — 54,490 (39,786 + 4,333 + 10,371) — 70,474
- 2013 — 50,229 (38,637 + 4,210 + 7,382) — 67,125
- 2014 — 48,268 (37,823 + 4,005 + 6,440) — 67,512
- 2015 — 36,514* (30,686 + 3,394 + 2,434) — TBD
Note: Reported ticket data does not include premium seating, which is annually sold out and counts 2,280 people toward each game's final attendance figure (and counts as 1,970 in ticket sales). Premium seating is sold out again in 2015 and the UI's Rick Klatt said there is a waiting list for those club-level and suite tickets.