IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa administrators watched the opening-weekend buzz at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field from afar as Big Ten football cousin Wisconsin upended SEC power LSU.
The Badgers vaulted from unranked into the top 10. They were praised for competing against another powerhouse at a neutral site. Their fans mingled with their Cajun counterparts at the NFL’s legendary mecca.
“You hear a lot of discussions about what happened the first weekend with all those big games,” said Iowa deputy athletics director Gene Taylor, who handles football scheduling. “Are we going to look at that?”
It appears Iowa will entertain offers for opening a season against a Power 5 opponent. Whether it was the positivity generated by Wisconsin, Iowa’s de facto status as weak schedulers (most of which isn’t the school’s fault) or College Football Playoff consideration, it’s a glorious development. Fans want to see big games against big opponents. In many ways, opening weekend has become a bowl trip in reverse. Only way more important.
But to play a big opening-weekend game, Iowa has to navigate a confluence of challenges, from Big Ten scheduling to its instate rivalry to gate revenue. This year, the Big Ten added a ninth game to the league schedule. That ninth game replaced Iowa’s traditional second Power 5 opponent on its schedule. In even years, like 2016, Iowa plays five road Big Ten teams. That leaves little scheduling maneuverability.
Iowa and Iowa State have played annually for the last 40 seasons. It’s an annual September celebration, and the games are sold out at both campuses. The Cy-Hawk Showdown is part of a bigger, sponsored challenge between the universities for all sports, not just football. The teams are from major conferences and have a contract through 2021. Within the borders, it’s the year’s biggest event. But it also handcuffs Iowa to any scheduling changes.
The series is a Midwest enigma of sorts. Wisconsin doesn’t play Wisconsin Commonwealth. Nebraska doesn’t have a trophy game with Nebraska Tech. There’s no dilly bar challenge between Minnesota and Minnesota State (which actually exists). Instate rivalries in Michigan, Illinois and Indiana already are played within the conference. None of Ohio State’s instate foes compete in a major conference or share any semblance of history with the Buckeyes. Iowa and Iowa State have a unique relationship compared with the rest of their conference foes. It’s a state without a professional team, so the Hawkeyes and Cyclones fill that void.
Iowa’s athletic bottom line demands a seven-game home schedule. From ticket sales to concessions, Iowa generates around $5 million of revenue per home gate. If the Hawkeyes play five road Big Ten games, they need all three nonconference games at Kinnick Stadium. By rotating campuses each year with Iowa State, that leaves just open two games. Without giving up a huge guarantee or a return trip, no major opponent would consider a one-game contract at Kinnick Stadium. Plus, Iowa City-area business leaders donate to the Hawkeyes program, and taking away one home game affects their annual bottom line.
So that leaves Iowa with no real options, right? Five annual games on the road and at home. The Hawkeyes need their other two games at Kinnick, so they pay off a MAC squad or an FCS opponent (well, just two more) or another school. But that limits both variety and marketing options. If Iowa’s schedule was a food option, it would be steak and potatoes. But steak and potatoes get dry without any sauce or gravy.
“It’s going to be hard for us right now, just with the nine games plus Iowa State to find a hole for that,” Taylor said.
But Iowa has a third option, one that Taylor acknowledges. If Iowa was guaranteed about the same revenue for a one-time neutral-site game, it could afford to lose one gate. If it’s done a few years in advance, business leaders could prepare for their revenue loss. Plus the excitement of such a game would trump those lingering concerns.
“I’m sure as more and more of those games happen down the road it raises opportunities,” said Taylor, who said he’s been approached by representatives for possible one-time events.
“That paycheck is going to be … I think it’s going to have to work for our fans. We did it one year in Chicago, and I think in those kind of things, if we’d ever do it, it would be something that you’d want to do for your fan base so you can make sure you fill it up.”
Iowa has played neutral-site games in Chicago (2007, 2012) and Kansas City (2000). Either location, along with St. Louis, would provide an easy trip for fans against regional opponents like Missouri, Arkansas, the Oklahoma schools or the Kansas schools. Or Iowa could head to recruiting hotbeds like Dallas, Houston or Atlanta. Any location against a Power 5 opponent would energize the fan base.
The other option — for which a vocal minority of Iowa fans advocate — is ending its series with Iowa State. The Cyclones’ last winning season was 2009 after winning the Insight Bowl. The Cy-Hawk games are close with Iowa, but the Cyclones struggle to get off the mat otherwise. Iowa State is 19-66 in Big 12 play the last 10 years. In the Big 12’s 20-year history, Iowa State has had one winning record in league play, 5-3 in 2000. But that’s a nuclear option for a popular rivalry among both die-hards and fair-weather fans who share the same neighborhoods, churches and cubicles. Let alone what the rivalry adds in basketball season and for other events.
Watching Wisconsin upset LSU while the Hawkeyes pound Miami of Ohio puts Iowa in the national perception penitentiary. Whether it’s surrender the seventh home game for a neutral-site bonanza (my preference) or putting the Cy-Hawk series on hiatus for a couple of years (not my preference), something needs to change. It’s a good thing Iowa’s administrators realize it, too.