Sticker shock: Iowa football rethinking $95 tickets with 4,000 unsold for Penn State game

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The last time Iowa hosted a prime-time football game, Kinnick Stadium was bursting at the seams, with 70,585 fans providing the amped-up backdrop for a 14-13 win over heavy favorite Michigan.

When No. 4 Penn State comes to town Saturday evening, there will again be a buildup of excitement among Hawkeye fans. But Kinnick will probably not be full. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, 4,000 tickets were available for arguably Iowa’s biggest home game of the season, according to associate athletics director Charlie Taylor.

We're pretty sure you remember this night: Fans storm the field after Iowa Hawkeyes place kicker Keith Duncan kicks the game-winning field goal against the Michigan Wolverines at Kinnick Stadium last November. The Hawkeyes won 14-13 that day, and they face No. 4 Penn State under the Kinnick lights this Saturday.

How could a battle of two 3-0 Big Ten Conference opponents not be played before a capacity crowd? Taylor, who is in charge of marketing in the athletic department, has a few theories, but start with the cost of a single-game ticket — at $95, the highest ever for an Iowa home game.

“You always second-guess yourself. I think we all would when you still have this many tickets remaining,” Taylor said. “I wouldn’t say we regret (the ticket price). Will it make us think the next time? Yeah.”

Iowa’s seven-game home schedule this fall includes only one traditional rival (Minnesota), but two marquee matchups in Penn State and Ohio State. Taylor said the athletic department staff eyed those games this spring and set the $95 price based on anticipated demand.

“If you’re only going to come to one game, what’s the value of playing the team that was just in the Rose Bowl?” Taylor asked rhetorically, referring to Penn State.

The response from many fans has been: less than $95.

“Some people have said, ‘That’s too expensive for me,’” Taylor admitted.

As such, there are likely to be a few thousand empty seats when the game kicks off at 6:42 p.m. before a national TV audience on ABC. Iowa tried to drum up some last-minute sales Thursday by offering students the chance to buy tickets at half-price. The cheapest ticket for sale Thursday afternoon on the secondary market was $67. 

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Iowa’s ticketing strategy is built around preserving the value of season tickets first. Those are the team's core fans, and they spent $405 for all seven home games this season, an average of $58 per ticket.

That’s what keeps people such as George Sauerberg coming back year after year. The 67-year-old Iowa City resident has had tickets near the north end zone at Kinnick for more than 20 seasons. That location put him in a great spot to see Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson leap through the Michigan line for the safety that turned the tide in last year’s upset. He’ll be there again Saturday, hoping for another memory of a lifetime.

But Sauerberg was surprised to hear the game is not sold out.

“If there are a lot of empty seats, then you notice that,” he said. “But if it’s close to capacity, it seems the same in terms of the volume.”

Would he pay $95 to attend?

“I guess I’d be tempted, but it’s pretty high. I might err on the side of staying home,” Sauerberg conceded.

Rich Williams, 59, a four-year season ticket holder who travels from his Arizona home to attend Hawkeye games, isn’t convinced that it’s the price tag keeping some fans away Saturday. Perhaps they just lack his passion.

“I have never, ever thought, ‘This is a game I’m not going to’ for any reason. Money, inconvenience, whatever,” Williams said Thursday before boarding a plane to Omaha. “I just can’t see people who piss away $95 sitting in a bar for a couple of hours say they don’t want to spend that much to actually go to a game.”

The $95 ticket may have been a case of sticker shock for many Hawkeye fans, but it’s not out-of-line with what other Midwest teams charge.

Two weeks ago, Iowa visited Iowa State for the annual Cy-Hawk game, with a single-game price of $90. That game sold out Jack Trice Stadium, with 61,500 watching the Hawkeyes prevail in overtime.

Wisconsin is asking $100 for tickets to the Hawkeye game in Madison this fall. Nebraska wants $135 for fans to come see Ohio State. 

On the flip side, Northwestern is charging only $60 for its home game with Penn State. And $100 could have gotten you into the Nittany Lions' Oct. 21 showdown with Michigan at Beaver Stadium, although those tickets are long gone. 

Last season, the Hawkeyes averaged 69,656 fans per home game to rank 20th in the nation, according to data compiled by CBS Sports. That home slate included rivals Iowa State, Wisconsin and Nebraska, plus the big night game against No. 3 Michigan. The most expensive tickets were $85 for the Wisconsin and Michigan contests.

Iowa is nearly 3,000 fans off that pace through two home games this year, against Wyoming and North Texas.

It’s a sign of the challenges facing major-college football programs throughout the country. The CBS Sports analysis found that attendance declined by nearly 1 percent in 2016, the sixth consecutive year it decreased. Average crowds were 43,106.

The underlying factor is fans that are finding it more convenient to watch games at home, where the TV options are plentiful, food and beverages are at their fingertips and worries about traffic into and out of the stadium aren't in the picture.

Taylor, in his second year working at his alma mater after spending eight years in charge of ticketing at the University of Oklahoma, said there were other challenges to attracting a sold-out crowd Saturday.

Among them: 

-- The kickoff time wasn’t announced until Sept. 11, making it difficult for fans traveling from great distances to plan for the weekend. That’s a new stipulation in the Big Ten television contract this year, allowing networks like ABC/ESPN to pick prime-time games 12 days ahead of time instead of during the summer. Taylor noted that six-day windows for setting kickoff times are common elsewhere, however, including at Oklahoma, which is in the Big 12 Conference.

“Our fans will get used to that,” Taylor said. “They might not like to hear that. It’s an adjustment. But in a year or two, they will.”

-- Last Saturday’s 31-14 win against North Texas was played in stifling 90-degree weather. The forecast calls for a high of 91 degrees for the Penn State game. Taylor said he’s heard some people aren’t sure they want to sit through back-to-back games in those conditions.

-- Iowa has installed a new antenna system aimed at providing fans more cellular data during games, but it isn’t operating at peak efficiency yet. Some fans complained last Saturday that they gave up trying to use their phones in the first quarter. Being able to interact on social media has become an expectation for a younger generation of fans.

“It’s not a quick process,” Taylor said of boosting cellular capabilities in an 88-year-old stadium. “You’ve got to take a sample size of usage over time of how fans are using their phones and what the bandwidth is.

“I wouldn’t say it’s hurting us. There’s just as many fans as want it as want to put their phone away and watch a football game.”

-- Fans from visiting teams aren’t as willing to travel as in the past. Last season, Iowa scheduled North Dakota State, a notoriously hardy fan base that gobbled up several thousand tickets and helped the Hawkeyes maintain a strong average attendance. Last week, Penn State returned 464 unsold tickets to Iowa.

“Only the (Chicago) Cubs fill everywhere else they go on the road anymore. Maybe the (Dallas) Cowboys,” Taylor said, referencing two name-brand professional teams.

It’s the visiting fans who typically have no choice but to buy single-game tickets. That’s what Penn State season-ticket holder Mat Stoudnour did. He’s bringing eight of his friends along Saturday for their annual excursion to a Big Ten venue they’ve never visited before.

Stoudnour, 38, said they didn’t balk at Iowa’s ticket cost. Nittany Lion road games are often priced higher because of the team’s history of success. Stoudnour also paid $140 to see Penn State play at Ohio State later this season.

“You want to be the in-demand game,” Stoudnour reasoned. “This will be our first time to Iowa. We love to see the pageantry of the event, the marching band and the different traditions that each school has. We’ve always had a great experience on the road mingling with the fans.

“I’ve said that I celebrate Christmas morning seven Saturdays in the fall. This will give me an eighth.”

It’s those kind of throwback fans that Taylor and his staff must not alienate, while also trying to cultivate a new generation of college football devotees. He said his goal is to make each game a spectacle. He hinted that Saturday’s pregame festivities — which feature former Hawkeye star Chad Greenway — will also include pyrotechnics.

“There always needs to be something that you can’t get at home. How do we make it so when you walk out of the building Saturday, win or lose, there was some cool stuff that you experienced with your family?” Taylor said.

“Twenty years ago, we would all just say, ‘Here’s our schedule. We’re going to open our doors and you’re all going to come.’ It was a different time.”

The question is, what will people pay for that spectacle? Iowa relies on football ticket sales — $19.45 million last season — as a significant revenue stream for its athletic budget. Watching tickets go unsold doesn’t help the cause.

Taylor feels pressure to get the balance right between affordability and profit.

“The goal is to sell out every game,” he said. “The goal is always to make sure that you’ve got enough to pay the bills to fund 24 sports at Iowa. That is not a cheap proposition. We need to sell out football games so we can provide the best experience for someone on the rowing team to win a Big Ten title.

“We’re going to have an electric atmosphere (Saturday), don’t get me wrong. But if 4,000 more fans come, then it will be 4,000 fans louder. I want people to know that tickets are available.”