It doesn’t matter which football team the Iowa Hawkeyes are playing in Iowa City this fall – fans are ready to watch live games again after not being allowed into Kinnick Stadium last year due to COVID-19 protocols. “With football, you can see early on that there’s definitely pent-up demand,” said Think Iowa City President […]
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It doesn’t matter which football team the Iowa Hawkeyes are playing in Iowa City this fall – fans are ready to watch live games again after not being allowed into Kinnick Stadium last year due to COVID-19 protocols.
“With football, you can see early on that there’s definitely pent-up demand,” said Think Iowa City President Josh Schamberger in late August. “We don’t typically sell out hotel rooms for some of the non-conference games or early games, so it helps to have a Big Ten opponent [Indiana] for that first game. But I would say that we didn’t really need it this year because there’s so much pent-up demand that people were coming to see the Hawks, no matter who they play. They’re ready to get back and enjoy some college football in Iowa City.”
Last August, it was a different story as Mr. Schamberger predicted the economic impact of the loss of the fall football season at “north of $120 million” based on numbers from 2016 when the last economic impact study was conducted in conjunction with the UI’s School for Urban and Regional Planning.
“This particular community is heavily dependent on the University [of Iowa]. We’re not a community that’s corporate heavy, so athletics is a big part of that, as is health care,” Mr. Schamberger said. “With the fall football season, there’s a tremendous amount of community businesses, from hoteliers to restaurants, that are looking forward to, and in some ways, they’re kind of built on that fall season. To not have it was dramatic.”
The Big Ten Conference eventually held an abbreviated season beginning in mid-October 2020, but with limited attendance in stadiums that range from 47,000 capacity at Northwestern to around 109,000 at Michigan. The average 69,000 fans who descend on the Corridor for each home Hawkeye game, as well as their “tag-alongs” who don’t attend the games, were sorely missed last year.
“There’s just a lot of visitation driven by the athletics department in general,” said Iowa City Downtown District Executive Director Nancy Bird. “You’ll see a real steady cross-traffic of people going to the game, or you’ll see them coming downtown. That cross traffic going back and forth between Kinnick Stadium and downtown certainly wasn’t the same last year.”
Students, staff a welcome sight
There is much more optimism heading into this fall as the UI resumed a full in-person class schedule in August, and the Big Ten gave a green light for full capacity at all athletic venues.
“Having the return of the faculty and students in the University of Iowa operations is really major for us,” Mr. Schamberger said. “The return of a lot of visitors to the community bodes well for the entire economy.”
Ms. Bird said that while many UI students returned to the community during the 2020-21 school year, that didn’t necessarily result in much foot traffic downtown.
“They came here, and they were online remotely getting their education, or they were here and had a few classes. Part of that was their choice on how they went to school,” she said. “We did have a large population here. It just wasn’t the same because people were staying close to their home, where they were still doing online learning from their apartments or elsewhere or on campus.”
The absence of UI faculty and administrative staff who worked remotely rather than on campus also took its toll on the local economy.
“With a lot of the University of Iowa employment base being virtual, we didn’t have those big lunch crowds that come in from the university administrative staff and faculty,” Ms. Bird said. “The way they’re bringing their staff and faculty back into campus, there’s a timeframe for that. We’ll be glad when everybody gets back to their offices.”
Not just downtown benefits
Although the University of Iowa volleyball team played for the first time this spring in their new home at Xtream Arena in the Iowa River Landing in Coralville, the public could not attend the delayed 2020 season.
“They were only allowed to have parents in the arena, so there was generally an attendance of anywhere between 50 and 100 people,” Mr. Schamberger said. “So it really wasn’t the experience that they have longed for since they made the decision to have that be their new home.”
The Hawkeye volleyball team felt the excitement of home-court advantage as they started their first home season with fans at Xtream Arena with the Cy-Hawk Series Tournament Sept. 9-11.
In addition to volleyball games, the arena will host the inaugural season of the Iowa Heartlanders hockey team, with its first game on Oct. 22 and the Toby Keith concert on Oct. 14.
Volleyball and hockey games that don’t have seating on the floor can accommodate around 5,100 fans, while events with full seating can reach a capacity of nearly 6,800. Without COVID-19 restrictions, this will provide a healthy economic boost to the area.
“We have been able to have a number of events down there during COVID, but they’ve been very limited attendance,” Mr. Schamberger said.
The USA Wrestling Senior Nationals held April 30-May 2 with 1,800, or 20% capacity, in attendance was the largest event held before August at the Xtream Arena.
“All the restaurants and retailers down there got a little bit of a taste of what’s to come, and they’ve been a little bit blown away by just what 20% capacity can bring to those places,” Mr. Schamberger said. “Just wait until October rolls around and there’s a sold-out Toby Keith concert.”