CORALVILLE, Iowa — A $46 million arena in development has opened up a number of possibilities for future sports in the Iowa City area.
The 7,000-seat arena will host many events, ranging from concerts and youth activities to potential University of Iowa sporting events. The volleyball team likely will move its games to the arena, which will be in Coralville’s thriving Iowa River Landing section. It’s set about two miles from Carver-Hawkeye Arena and slated to open in summer 2019.
The new arena will stage junior hockey tournaments and perhaps host a United States Hockey League team — as well as the University of Iowa’s club hockey team. It will be a financial boon, but it’s not the topic that gets people talking throughout Iowa’s Creative Corridor. Most of the speculation about the Coralville arena focuses on whether the university will add men’s and women’s ice hockey teams.
But there’s one sticking point with that conjecture — the athletics department isn’t on board with it. But it should be.
“I grew up playing hockey. I really do enjoy the sport,” said Iowa athletic director Gary Barta, a Minnesota native. “I love the sport. My answer is the same as it’s been since I’ve been here. We have 24 sports. If and until I feel like we’re funded at a competitive level in every sport that we currently have, it’s really hard for me to look [current] teams in the eye [and] add another sport.”
Barta regularly fields questions about adding ice hockey at Iowa, especially with the Big Ten forming a men’s hockey conference in 2013-14. Usually, Barta quickly diffuses the rhetoric. Along with insufficient funding, Barta previously has cited the lack of an arena as a reason to shrug off any suggestions for hockey.
Now it’s down to only finances.
“Our budget is eighth in the Big Ten,” Barta said. “Just about every sport will come to me and say, ‘Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, they have more. I need more.’ So it would be really hard in that scenario to add a sport.”
While that’s a major hurdle, Iowa should look at it as an opportunity. It’s unlikely ice hockey would siphon support from the basketball and wrestling programs, all of which have loyal audiences. In fact, it’s a chance for Iowa to expand — and enhance — its brand throughout the Midwest.
Six Big Ten schools have men’s ice hockey programs while four have women’s programs. For Iowa to join those ranks and stay within Title IX compliance, it would need to add both programs.
Financially, a few Big Ten hockey programs make money; most do not. Here are the 2016 fiscal year numbers for those programs submitted to the NCAA and obtained by Land of 10 through state open-records laws.
|Men’s revenues||Men’s expenses||Women’s revenues||Women’s expenses|
Annual expenses — excluding any one-time start-up costs — range from $5 million to $8 million combined. Each men’s and women’s ice hockey program is allowed 18 scholarships, which combine for roughly $2 million. Travel averages about $1 million. At Iowa, only three sports have total expenses that exceed $2.3 million annually: football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball. If men’s and women’s ice hockey joined the fold, both would rank in the top 5.
It’s unlikely Iowa hockey would finish in the black financially — at least early on. Minnesota’s men’s hockey program is the only one in the Big Ten that regularly makes money. The Gophers’ hockey program carries a similar prestige and tradition as Iowa wrestling. But if Barta and athletics officials need a template, Penn State’s men’s program not only made money in fiscal year 2016, it quickly has become competitive in the sport.
Hockey largely is a niche sport in Iowa, but it has a vibrant audience. Unlike in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, high school hockey is not sanctioned in Iowa. In the last decade, it has become a popular club activity in the state’s metro areas. The USHL junior-hockey league has teams in Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Waterloo and Des Moines. That would provide a natural feeder system and a healthy network of nearby supporters.
With thousands of Chicagoland-area students who are NHL fans, there’s a built-in, passionate fan base. Additionally, residents might not root as enthusiastically for the Coralville Condors (or pick another team nickname) as they would the Iowa Hawkeyes. That’s especially true if a Friday night opponent is longtime all-sport rivals Minnesota or Wisconsin.
The Big Ten is all-in on hockey these days, especially after the Pegula family donated $102 million — $89 million for the arena and $13 million for scholarships — to start Penn State’s ice hockey programs. That enabled the league to sponsor men’s hockey full-time. BTN airs hockey throughout the fall and winter and will broadcast the women’s Frozen Four. The league is shy of two women’s ice hockey programs for sponsorship. Adding women’s ice hockey would help Iowa return to the forefront as a national leader in gender equity in college athletics.
It’s unlikely Barta’s opinion on the sport will change. But speculation will continue to swirl locally about hockey and Iowa, especially once the arena is completed. You know what? It should.