IOWA CITY – For the first time in a couple of years, Iowa basketball players can feel the energy when they take the court at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“You do sense it when there is a crowd and this year, the fans are starting to come back and that gets you going when you come out of that tunnel,’’ Iowa junior Matt Gatens said. “You feed off of that.’’
Gatens isn’t alone.
“It’s a lot easier to play when there are people there supporting you. When we do something that gets the place rockin’ it’s a real advantage,’’ senior center Jarryd Cole said.
“With the crowds we’ve had this year, it’s starting to feel like home.’’
Attendance is up significantly at Iowa home games this season.
Through 14 dates, the Hawkeyes have averaged 11,442 fans per game. That compares with 9,376 fans through the same number of home games at Carver-Hawkeye Arena during the 2009-10 season.
The average rises to 11,961 in seven conference games, a number that will likely increase.
Iowa plays its first Saturday home Big Ten game since Jan. 16, 2010 today when it hosts Michigan at 3:30 p.m. and while the date for the Hawkeyes’ final conference home game against Purdue has not yet been set, it will be played on either a Saturday or Sunday.
“Optimistically, we’re looking at crowds of 12,500 or better for both games which should push us over 11,500 for the year. That would be a good step forward,’’ said Rick Klatt, Iowa associate athletic director for external affairs.
Klatt said surveys have shown that Hawkeye fans prefer late Saturday afternoon home games over any potential starting time during the week.
“For the fans driving in from Des Moines or the Quad-Cities, that 3 o’clock start on Saturday is optimum,’’ Klatt said.
“It gives them a chance to drive in and out during the day, have dinner in Iowa City before returning home, that type of thing.’’
However, television networks dictate starting times and with the Hawkeyes’ recent on-court struggles, Iowa has not had many games in the league’s premier television windows.
Fans have used tickets they have purchased at a higher rate than in recent seasons, although Klatt said Iowa still has some work to do to ensure that the 1,600-plus students who purchased student season tickets use those tickets.
“We’ve seen decent student numbers at a couple of games and there is a buzz in the building when they are here,’’ Klatt said.
“Student attendance drives energy in the arena and it’s an area where we need to continue to work.’’
Iowa finished the 2009-10 season with an average attendance of 9,550, the lowest number in the 28 years the Hawkeyes have played at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa’s current attendance increase of 2,066 fans per game compares favorably to a 2,478-fan increase at Kansas State which led the nation a year ago and it bucks the national trend.
USA Today reported two weeks ago that attendance through early February in the six high-major conferences is down five percent from a year ago.
Klatt said some of Iowa’s increase was expected.
“There is always increased enthusiasm when there is a transition in a program and we’re hearing from fans that they enjoy the kind of basketball that Fran (McCaffery, Iowa’s first-year coach) wants to play,’’ Klatt said.
“Those two things have helped, and from a marketing and game-management perspective, we are doing what we can to assist. Are the hot dogs hot? Are the sodas cold? Are the sidewalks shoveled? Those types of things do matter.’’
Klatt said Iowa has worked to offer affordable ticket plans.
For a recent home game with Wisconsin, 320 “Family Four Packs’’ which included admission and concession items for four people were sold to bring an extra 1,200 fans into the arena.
He also believes an improved economy also may be benefiting all of Iowa’s winter sports programs. Attendance at women’s basketball and wrestling meets has risen above 2009-10 levels and Iowa expects to see revenue increases from each of the three programs when numbers are compiled after the season.