Iowa Looks To Improve Gameday Experience

By Marc Morehouse, The Gazette

IOWA CITY — The “Burrito Lift” is as good of a place to start as any.

It’s been a longtime promotion at Iowa football and basketball games for a local Mexican restaurant. The Kinnick Stadium or Carver-Hawkeye Arena scoreboard flashed “Burrito Lift” and fans respond by raising their arms and hands in the air, as if to pass a giant imaginary burrito.

Believe it or not, a few years ago, Iowa athletics director Gary Barta was all for dumping the lift on year in basketball.

“We got huge negative feedback,” Barta said Friday during a news conference at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “I know some people think that’s quirky, but just watch the stadium when it happens and all the people doing it.”

The Kinnick game day experience has been a topic since offensive line coach Brian Ferentz tweeted about the lack of it toward the end of the 2013 season. Head coach Kirk Ferentz also touched on the topic.

“I think it’s just a matter of us trying to be where everybody else is at,” Kirk Ferentz said in November. “We go into some tough venues and [the schools] make it even better. That’s no suggestion that our fans aren’t into it. It’s our job to generate the electricity and energy, Iowa fans have been great forever and will continue to be so.”

From the Burrito Lift to the stadium music to the red, white and blue pompoms that Iowa brought out to celebrate Veterans Day (the red and the white went well with the Wisconsin uniforms, which Iowa happened to be playing that day, while the blue ones were lost because the stadium was wearing black for a “Black Out”), it’s on fans’ and certainly the UI sports administration’s minds.

Barta said Iowa since last season has brought in sports marketing professionals for advice on this. The feedback has been that they like a lot of what Iowa does, but there are some new ideas coming. Barta didn’t reveal those Wednesday. He wants to keep them a surprise until the season begins.

The struggle Iowa faces is the line between tradition — Barta mentioned the Nile Kinnick speech, the players walking down the steps onto the field (AC/DC’s “Back in Black”) and the swarm (the close formation of the black-and-gold clad players entering the field) — and promotions that can be sponsored and help pay the bills.

For instance, the stadium videoboard runs an ad right up to the playing of the national anthem.

“It’s a constant discussion,” Barta said. “How do you balance how far you’ll go in sponsorship and, yet, how are you going to pay the bills?”

Iowa’s athletics budget this year is $85 million, which is seventh in the Big Ten. Still, Barta said he expects the UI’s athletics programs to compete with other Big Ten schools with higher budgets.

“It’s a balancing act between the financial need and commitment to compete versus a fun, exciting environment,” he said.

Barta said Iowa is looking at how it can better use the videoboard it installed last season. He also mentioned a more finely tuned sound system in Kinnick this season. Iowa isn’t exactly taking requests for music in the stadium, but it has taken some feedback.

“We’re not going to through everything out and just start over,” he said. “The goal is to continue to amp up the fun and continue to continue to move the fun-meter a little bit.”

Iowa simply can’t take 70,000 song requests. Given that, Barta knows 70,000 fans aren’t going to get exactly what they want.

“We’re constantly trying to make it better,” Barta said. “When you have 70,000 people, there’s no way . . . If we ever find an idea that all 70,000 people all say is great, then I’ll probably have reached that pinnacle.”

Concept of customer service . . . No, Iowa doesn’t have a customer service department, but, Barta said, the ticket office and the I-Club/development offices take a ton of suggestions/complaints from fans and try to respond. Barta said Iowa also has a “secret shopper” program, in which an anonymous fan goes through ticketing and Kinnick and reports back to the athletics department.

“We’re making follow-up calls to fans if they didn’t renew [tickets], asking why to see if we can learn from it,” he said. “We don’t have a customer service department per se, but it’s all hands on deck. We’re listening.”

Moving into the new football facility . . . A harsh winter pushed back the move-in date for Iowa’s new football operations building. Barta said the construction is on schedule or very close to it, but the team will put off moving into the facility likely until Iowa’s first bye week the week of Oct. 5. The original plan was to move in before Iowa’s fall camp, which starts on or around Aug. 4.

“I think we’ve reached a point where we’re not going to be moving in during camp,” Barta said. “Kirk has made the decision. He doesn’t want that distraction.”

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