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Iowa athletic director says Kinnick Stadium renovations are on time and on budget. He also talks about Big Ten divisional realignment. Listen: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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CHICAGO — Iowa athletic director Gary Barta has consistently filled out his school's nonconference football schedule with teams from smaller leagues.

That is the case this season, when the Hawkeyes will host Miami of Ohio and Middle Tennessee State, in addition to the nine Big Ten Conference games and the rivalry matchup with Iowa State.

But Barta indicated Friday that he’s considering shaking things up with future schedules.

“I am looking at some unique opportunities out a ways that might be even bigger than (games like Miami) to our fans,” Barta told Iowa reporters at the annual Big Ten football media days gathering. “We’ve played some games here in Chicago in Soldier Field. I haven’t yet found one that fits, but I wouldn’t be against a neutral game if we could find the right fit.”

Iowa last played in the Chicago Bears’ stadium in 2012, defeating Northern Illinois. The next opening on the schedule is in 2024.

The game against Iowa State is in no danger of disappearing, Barta reiterated. It’s what he and coach Kirk Ferentz both desire.

“We’ve both been pretty clear that as long as we’re here, we think it’s good for our state, we think it’s good for college football,” Barta said. “(Cyclones coach) Matt (Campbell) is doing a terrific job, so I think it’s going to continue getting better.”

Some major-college programs are scheduling out as far as 2030. Arranging home-and-home series is a popular way to do that.

Barta wants no part of that practice. For one thing, he continues to advocate for a 10-game league schedule, which would make scheduling that far out problematic. Barta acknowledged he’s a lone wolf on that topic, and there’s been no traction for adding another Big Ten game. But there hasn’t been any discussion of retreating to an eight-game schedule either, he said.

That’s the first step Barta would like to see: For all of the Power Five conferences to play the same amount of games within their leagues. Beyond that?

“(A 10-game Big Ten schedule) is one person’s desire, because I think it’s great for college football, and I think it’s great for the fans,” Barta said. “I don’t think it has any momentum.”

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Looking to keep fans in stands

Barta theorized that colleges are getting more creative with scheduling as a way to combat lagging attendance.

“There’s more and more people who are enjoying the 70-inch screen in their home, fewer and fewer who are buying tickets two and three years in advance,” he said. “And so we’d better be prepared to keep making the fan experience as great as it possibly can be.”

Iowa averaged 68,043 fans in seven home games last year to rank 21st in the country. That is an average of 1,200 below capacity at Kinnick Stadium. Barta said his concern is more about the national landscape.

“We’re doing fine right now,” he said. “When I first arrived (14 years ago), we were sold out of most games in July. That hasn’t happened now in many years. Anecdotally, there’s a lot of enthusiasm for this team and tickets are selling fine, similar to last year. But long-term, I just want to make sure we don’t assume that every game’s just going to be exciting and sell out.”

To that end, Iowa spent nearly $90 million to renovate the seating area in the north end zone at Kinnick. That work resulted in a reduction of 1,500 seats, but more space and amenities for fans in that part of the stadium. The final results will be on display when Iowa opens the season Aug. 31 against Miami.

“It will be ready,” Barta said of the three-year project. “It’s on time. On budget. Hopefully, a little bit below budget.”

No alcohol sales again this year

There will be certain club seats in the north end zone in which patrons can buy and consume alcohol. But beer will not be available throughout the stadium again this year. That day is drawing inevitably nearer, Barta said.

He said he told university president Bruce Harreld five years ago: “Just keep your eye on the tipping point. And the tipping point being that eventually, from an entertainment standpoint, selling beer and wine in stadiums and arenas across the country would probably become the norm.

“The NCAA has now approved it for all championships. You’re seeing more and more schools every year. I anticipate at some point we’ll get there.”

Educating athletes about gambling

Legalized sports wagering is coming to Iowa, and Barta said his department is bracing for it.

“We’re doubling down on education,” he said, pun intended. “We have to make sure that our student-athletes are reminded at ways that gambling can intervene in your life.”

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Barta cited as an example, an athlete’s friend who may be looking for injury information. That person may be relaying that information to professional gamblers.

Barta said coaches and other Iowa students who work in the athletic department are getting the same message.

“I try to control what we can control,” Barta said. “We’re going to do everything we can to educate and make sure we don’t end up in a difficult situation to the best of our ability."

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. No one covers the Hawkeyes like the Register. Subscribe today at Des Moines Register.com/Deal to make sure you never miss a moment.

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