Iowa embraces 'Fans First' in push for football ticket sales

Chad Leistikow
Iowa's average home attendance in 2015 was 63,142, which was 6.5 percent drop from 2014.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — One spring ago, the terrain to market Iowa football season tickets was rugged.

As win-loss expectations sunk, so did demand. Sales plummeted 16 percent in a single offseason.

But today?

A mundane 2015 home schedule transitioned to attractive in 2016. A five-year program malaise has given way to a program revival. Expectations are orbiting around back-to-back Big Ten divisional titles. The “Fire Ferentz” crowd is silent.

Just throw open the gates at Kinnick Stadium and people are sure to come ... right?

The Iowa athletics department understands it's not that simple. As Friday’s April 15 deadline for season-ticket renewals looms, UI is hoping some comprehensive changes can build an improved relationship with its fans.

Matt Henderson reflects one of those changes. He’s just a few weeks into his new role as senior associate athletic director in charge of external relations and revenue. Yes, that includes overseeing ticket sales.

Henderson comes over from an assistant vice president role at the UI Foundation, where he observed and agreed that the lack of appreciation for Hawkeye fans “can come across sometimes.”

That has prompted new messaging that you’ll see in social media and marketing campaigns in coming weeks and months: “Fans First.”

One of the goals in “Fans First”: Eliminate the hassles.

“I can’t make Melrose Avenue six lanes heading one direction. There’s some things we can’t control,” he said. “But the things that we can, we want to be effective with.”

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Assisting a fan’s journey to (and exit from) Kinnick Stadium is one priority. Henderson understands the parking system, including the alpha-numeric names of the lots, could be more fan-friendly. Concession sales will be revisited, including whether more local vendors could be involved. The too-cramped North End Zone won't be renovated this year, but planning in that $45 million project has begun.

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta repeatedly said last offseason that he understood fans were disappointed, and that the university would fight to win back those that voted against Hawkeye football with closed wallets.

Even with last year’s stunning 12-0 regular season (including a 7-0 home mark), average Kinnick attendance was 63,142 — down by 4,370 fans per game from 2014, or 6.5 percent. Among Big Ten teams, only Northwestern (which had home attendance plummet 14 percent despite a 10-2 regular season) saw a sharper butts-in-seats decline.

Season-ticket sales had Iowa fighting with one arm behind its back. Sales went from 48,268 in 2014 (general public, faculty/staff and students) to 40,495. Most of the losses were among the public, with a drop of 6,926 season tickets from 2014 — or 18.3 percent. At $395 a pop for a seven-game ticket, that totals more than $2.7 million in lost revenue.

Thanks in part to winning, Iowa successfully made up quite a bit of ground in single-game sales to overcome that deficit. The Nov. 14 game against Minnesota was a sellout; Iowa could be on track for more of those in 2016 with rivals Iowa State and Wisconsin on the schedule, plus an attractive Nov. 12 matchup with Michigan.

“Season-ticket holders are the life blood of any sports team, at any level,” Henderson said. “We’re no different. We have to make sure we find ways to add value for our season-ticket holder.”

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Thousands of last year’s season-ticket holders took advantage of the benefit of Rose Bowl ticket priority. Some got access to Big Ten Football Championship Game tickets, too.

One of the notable changes going into 2016 is that single-game ticket prices are way up, while season-ticket prices rose nominally ($10, or 2.5 percent) for renewals. That's an added value for season-ticket holders, a concept used widely in pro sports that Iowa caught onto this year.

The average price per 2016 game is $57.86 for renewals, $59.29 for new orders. When single-game tickets go on sale in July, the per-game prices will be $55 for Miami (Ohio), $65 for North Dakota State, $70 for Northwestern and Nebraska, $80 for Iowa State and $85 for Michigan and Wisconsin.

Last year, the most expensive single-game seat was $65.

Henderson expects the renewal rates to be much higher than last year. He said many renewals have included increased ticket requests — for example, an account holder going from four to six seats — which will beef up season numbers.

Gone, though, in 2016 is the $70 concession stand incentive for early renewals, and students won’t have the opportunity for a $50 discount that some took advantage of last year.

UI says it will welcome feedback as “Fans First” gets started.

“Constructive criticism is good. That’s how we get better. That’s how anybody gets better,” Henderson said. “You just can’t take it personally.”

Key ticket dates

An expected timeline for Iowa’s football-ticket sales in 2016:

April 15 (Friday): Deadline for renewals.

Late April/early May: UI circling back to those who didn’t renew.

May/June: Season-ticket holders and new ticket holders will have the opportunity to improve or change seats based on the athletic priority points systems. 

Mid-to-late June: Three-game packages offered (last year, the cost was $157).

July: Single-game tickets offered.

Polk County I-Club event

The first stop on Kirk Ferentz’s spring banquet tour is Tuesday at the Sheraton Hotel (1800 50th Street) in West Des Moines. It’s happening a little earlier than usual because of schedule conflicts, but it’ll serve as Ferentz’s first chance to deliver his offseason football stump speech after Iowa’s first Rose Bowl bid in 25 years.

Gary Dolphin, the voice of the Hawkeyes, will emcee the football-themed event. Several former Hawkeyes are scheduled to be on hand, including Austin Blythe and Jordan Lomax. Doors open at 5 p.m., with a social hour at 6 and dinner at 7.

Tickets will be sold at the door ($38 for adults, $28 for eighth-graders or younger) and include a meal and program. Contact Polk County I-Club President Joe Chmelka (515-770-7535) or visit for more information.

Projecting the Iowa football starters in 2016