Carver-Hawkeye Arena turned 35 this month, but no reason to celebrate

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Isaiah Moss shoots a jumper with plenty of empty seats behind him. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Carver-Hawkeye Arena turned 35 years old earlier this month, but there was no reason to celebrate.

The home court for Iowa men’s and women’s basketball, wrestling and volleyball never has been very popular since it opened on Jan. 3, 1983.

It was a big deal when it opened because building a new arena for basketball is always a big deal on a collegiate campus.

University of Iowa officials had reason to be proud when Carver-Hawkeye Arena opened because it showed that the UI was committed to keeping up with the facilities arms race and because it was entirely funded by private donations.

The old UI Fieldhouse was full of ambience and tradition, but lacked some of the simple things in life, like space and parking.

Carver-Hawkeye Arena was built to usher Iowa into the modern era and to enhance the fan viewing experience.

And it was unique in that it was built into the ground. Unlike most arenas where fans climb stairs to get to their seats, fans have to walk down stairs to get to their seats at Carver.

It’s a cool concept until you realize that you have to walk upstairs in order to use the restroom or the concession stand.

Carver-Hawkeye Arena doesn’t have a middle concourse or mezzanine, so the climb can be grueling for some, especially for those with the so-called better seats near courtside.

I remember thinking after being in Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the first few times how odd it was that the best seats from a viewing standpoint were the worst seats from a convenience standpoint.

The large amount of space that separates the court from the seats also stood out, but for all the wrong reasons. Carver-Hawkeye Arena is setup just the opposite of Kinnick Stadium, where fans are practically on the field.

Most of the fans at Carver sit at least 20 feet from courtside. There are some fans and distinguished guests that sit courtside, but not enough to create much buzz or excitement.   

Carver-Hawkeye Arena's built-in flaws were easier to mask in the 1980s, and for most of the 1990s because the Iowa men’s basketball team usually was good enough to create interest.

But then came Steve Alford and the Pierre Pierce controversy followed by three disastrous seasons under Todd Lickliter from 2007-10 and Carver-Hawkeye Arena hasn’t been the same for men’s basketball.

Wrestling still brings a lot of energy to the arena as shown by Sunday’s match against Oklahoma State that drew over 13,000 fans.

I actually was stuck in traffic before and after the meet, which felt strange because I can’t remember the last time that happened for a men’s basketball game.

But with all due respect to wrestling, which only has about eight home matches per season, Carver-Hawkeye Arena was built mostly for men’s basketball.

Unfortunately, the arena is failing in that regard, partly due to its structural limitations, but also due to a lack of vision and an unwillingness to change.

Combine those flaws with a mediocre team and a miserable nonconference schedule and you have a recipe for disaster.

The atmosphere inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena for men’s basketball right now is a joke, but nobody is laughing.

This can't be what Lute Olson envisioned when he pushed for the arena to be built in the early 1980s, although, he bailed for Arizona just a few months after it was built.

The arena is barely half full for some games and the student section is usually a vast wasteland of empty seats. It has to be depressing and discouraging for the Iowa players to look up into the stands and see a bunch of empty seats in the student section.

A five or six-game winning streak in Big Ten play would provide a temporary fix to that problem. But that is much easier said than done, especially for an Iowa team that is 1-5 in the Big Ten heading into Wednesday’s game at Rutgers.

So in this case, desperate times call for extreme action.

It’s time that UI officials quit ignoring the lack of student interest and do something about it.

Iowa has played in three of the last four NCAA Tournaments, and in six consecutive postseason tournaments under current head coach Fran McCaffery, and yet the atmosphere in Carver-Hawkeye Arena leaves so much to be desired. 

My first suggestion would be to let the students in for free to show that they’re special. If Duke can do it, then so can Iowa.

What you lose in ticket revenue could be offset by having more students spend money at the concession stand.

My second suggestion, and the most important, would be to move the student section to courtside behind both teams’ benches. That would take some minor renovations, but the $50 million or so that Iowa receives from the Big Ten Conference on an annual basis could help pay the cost.

The students could stand on metal bleachers and hold signs while creating quite a distraction for the visiting team. The students would be far more visible on television, making them a bigger part of the viewing experience.

Some might counter by asking why reward the students when so few of them attend games now?

My response to that is simple; because they're the students and they deserve special consideration.

I’ve made these suggestions before, only to be told that allowing the students in for free would cheapen the product and would be a bad business decision, and that too many loyal fans and donors would be inconvenienced by moving the students to courtside.

That might be true, but having an environment in which the students want little part of also seems like a bad business decision.

As for the donors, there has to be a way to appease them, considering how much space is available in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

And you’d think the donors would want to help the students get move involved because that ultimately would help the team’s performance on the court.

This probably will fall on deaf ears because UI officials seem unwilling to do anything drastic to fix a problem that only seems to be getting worse.

Carver-Hawkeye Arena is arguably the worst home atmosphere in the Big Ten for men's basketball with exception to Penn State. And that’s a shame because it doesn’t have to be that way.