How to Improve the Carver Atmosphere

When Carver-Hawkeye Arena opened in the early 1980s, it was one of the nicest, most versatile college basketball facilities in the country. The 15,500-seat bowl-shaped structure held host to concerts and, of course, perennial sell-outs in men’s and women’s basketball as well as the dominate wrestling program. It was big, consistently full, and, true to the trends of the time, versatile in its use. Carver’s construction was also long overdue; it replaced the old Fieldhouse, a beautifully historic structure both compact and deafening, swallowing the court in a metallic din. It was also conveniently located right across the street from four of the University of Iowa’s dorms, so students could easily trot to games on school nights and weekends alike. The men’s basketball team was generally fantastic during the Fieldhouse’s nostalgic tenure, and fans were obnoxiously close to the floor to see it (like Kinnick Stadium). Unfortunately, parking was sparse, it was kind of a dated dump, and, worst of all, sight lines prevented fans in some seats from easily seeing the court. It was time for an upgrade, and in the 1980s, Carver was a perfectly relevant fit.

But in 2011, Carver just isn’t the arena it used to be. No more concerts grace its entrance, its corroding rust colored birds’ nest top is aesthetically painful, and the off-campus location requiring students to take buses or long walks over icy February terrain seems like a major obstacle to most with the men’s basketball team playing so terribly in recent years. Even with the 2011 completion of a wonderful new facility addition, which includes practice courts and plush coaches offices, the atmosphere at Carver for men’s hoops games just plain sucks. Iowa’s wrestling crowds are the best in the nation, a near-sellout group each night roaring with beer filled ecstasy, while the women’s hoops team draws as many fans as can be expected for any program not named Tennessee or Connecticut. But whether due to recent struggles or refusal to adapt to the 21st century of collegiate arenas, Carver is a stale, morbid atmosphere for men’s basketball games. Here are a few suggestions, some well-tread, for fixing the terrible crowd aspect of the Carver experience for men’s hoops.

1) Move the student section. This one should be repeated 100 times and that could fill out the list easily. It’s been discussed over and over again, but no changes appear to be on the horizon. Currently and infamously, Hawkeye students are crunched far in a corner behind the basket, where it’s difficult to see the court and even harder to make any sort of impact on the opposing team from a decibel standpoint. This past year, Iowa administrators moved the section one row closer to the opponent’s bench, a baby step for progress, but one that has made a very minimal impact. It’s just one row, after all, and its proximity to the opponent’s bench is still far enough away that the only souls likely to be struck by student spirit are the trainers at the end of the bench. Students don’t want to watch a crappy team play from far behind the basket, especially when they are so physically removed from the action that they can’t even make enough noise to affect the other team’s composure or fire their own squad up. Winning games would obviously help the student attendance problem, which has plagued Iowa basketball seemingly forever, or at least since I’ve been watching near the end of the Steve Alford-era. But the issues undoubtedly run deeper than a simple chicken-or-egg argument. Indiana, one of college hoops’ traditional powers, has been terrible for the past four years (although that appears to be changing), yet they have filled their student section each losing night. A raucous student section is key to any basketball team’s home arena being taken seriously — all of the elite programs have a notoriously loud one. The best sections in the Big 10, Illinois and Michigan State, each have their students lined up court side right in the middle of the floor, while Ohio State and Michigan do the same. On a national level, Duke is famous for their manic students lined up so close to the mid-court action they can touch opposing players when they are throwing the ball inbounds. Yet Iowa’s head honchos choose to give those coveted seats to old donors, often elderly couples who sit on their hands, refuse to stand, and only clap politely at plays that should bring the school’s youth to their feet for cheers and sheer lunacy. They buy ice cream cones, chat casually, and always leave early to beat the always-dangerous Iowa traffic. They may support Iowa with their dollars, but their sagging corpses are as much value to the game experience as the worthless Per-Mar volunteers trying to stop students from rushing the court after a big win. They do nothing to enhance the noise or crowd support for the hoops team, and often leave an embarrassingly dull mark on television, a big source of interest for potential recruits. Is someone going to want to come to Iowa instead of MSU when they see the Spartan student section in full force court side while Iowa’s court borders are filled with empty seats and drooling geriatrics clutching ice cream cones like it’s their life savings? The nursing home feel in the air, electric as a toothbrush, is incredibly distance from the party college basketball is supposed to be, despite how often “Party Rock Anthem” plays on the video screen. It’s a huge disservice to the students and their university experience to deny them the pleasure so many other schools grant their tuition payers freely. Sure, many of the old donors who have been sitting in their luxury seats for decades are going to be pissed off. But Carver will always be a dead atmosphere, never to be taken seriously, unless Iowa’s administrators do what other good basketball programs have done and puts the students court side. Some schools, like the aforementioned Indiana, successfully plant their students behind the basket. But Iowa is not Indiana, its students always more bandwagon than basketball savvy, and they aren’t going to come to games in droves simply for the love of the game. Two straight Iowa classes have graduated without seeing an NCAA tournament team, and a third is likely on the way. Iowa’s athletic administrators cannot rely on the program selling itself to attract students, the most essential fan aspect of the modern college basketball arena, to games. They need to give students seats they can actually look forward to cheering from.

2) Better organization in the student section. This is a big one too. Shots of the student section on television often portray a disinterested batch of hapless pasties, awkwardly clapping out of unison, chatting with their friends, or, worst of all, wearing some orange shirt that looks completely out of place among the gold and black. The biggest problem is that they honestly don’t know what to do at what times because, well, the basketball team hasn’t exactly been showing them what well-played basketball looks like. The country’s best sections are well-drilled, monochromatic, and singularly focused on the game. Just watch Utah State’s students perform the “We Will Win” chant or Illinois’ “Orange Krush” taunt an opposing player. Obviously, a more entertaining on-court product would keep students more engaged, but it’s much more than that. Iowa is behind the times in the marketing world; they have relied on the program to sell itself, as aforementioned, and only recently created juiced-up hype websites for its sports teams. The Hawks Nest, Iowa’s official student section organization, only formed two years ago. Its leaders have some fantastic ideas for improving the atmosphere, but the group is still in its infant stages and signs of their impact are minimal at this point. Nobody wants to attend a Hawks Nest meeting on basketball game chant ideas when the team loses by 20 to Northern Iowa. But attacking students when they are freshmen at their orientation is key, and developing a foundation for the future will be essential. If you teach a student all the chants, cheers, and traditions at orientation, for example, they will pass that on to classes under them and it will become the norm — a standard — like basketball traditions at other schools. Iowa hoops has undergone such a terrible stretch, a complete upheaval in tradition is necessary, and that takes time. Iowa is making progress in this area, but they are late to the party, and it will take time to “indoctrinate” students, not only teaching them that men’s hoops games can be fun and successful, but also how to behave and cheer at them as well. Wearing school colors is a must, cheering at all times is a must, and taunting opposing players with something more creative than “pussy” is probably a must as well. The Hawks Nest isn’t going to change the entire Iowa student body cultural demographic, but if they can get to students when they are young and fervor is still running high, then they can implant a tradition for years to come that hasn’t been there for the past few years with such disorganization at the top. They need to focus on pep rally style training sessions at freshman orientation because, after that, it’s simply too late.

3) Enhance the Cambus system. Most students don’t want to make the long trek from the other side of the Iowa River, or even the dorms in close proximity to the old Fieldhouse, on foot to Carver. Parking is awful unless you’re into shedding dollars, and walking up an ice-covered hill in a hellish Iowa winter isn’t exactly worth it in most students’ eyes when the team is likely to get thumped anyway. Routine Cambus routes exist to take students to the arena, and there is a special yet elusive Game Day Shuttle as well, but more buses are needed to transport students to the games, especially when the weather is particularly frightful and leaving the dorms doesn’t sound like a great prospect. It would cost more money, obviously, which could be placed into student fees along with other inane dollar sapping items. But the extra transportation would be well worth the additional cost if more students could get to the games on time in an efficient manner instead of becoming disheartened that the one bus that could get them to the game on time is filled to the brim. Right now, that student would likely walk back to his dorm and watch the game on television. But, if the university committed to providing extra buses for basketball games, that student could get to the game, along with countless others who likely couldn’t under the current circumstances. Getting more students to the game in a more efficient time period sounds like a win for all. This is all possible as long as shaky Cambus drivers can maintain control on icy roads, which admittedly is a risky guarantee.

4) Shuffle up the Pep Band. This concern seems relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, but anyone who has listened to their obnoxiously outdated jams, emphasis on inter-band fun instead of the actual basketball game, and nerdy obliviousness to the actual student section knows how annoying these bespectacled bozos can be. Anyone who says he/she likes the pep band needs to update their iTunes playlist or find some friends. These guys love to play the standard arena pump-up songs, which is fine and not unusual to the rest of the country, but they also focus on far too many ’80s classics or other old hits that have long grown stale. They vary between doing little and nothing to pump up the crowd playing Neil Diamond, Usher, Star Wars, or some disjointed combination of the three. Instead of enhancing the crowd, they distract it with their painfully awkward attention grabbing self-consciousness and their “what the hell are they doing” chants, which usually raise eyebrows, scoffs, or embarrassed expressions from the student section. I often feel like I have to apologize to somebody that Iowa produces students so out of touch not only with the game but also with generally regarded concepts of what constitutes “funny” or hip as far as music goes. So, pep band, crank up the hip-hop, cater to the student section instead of stifling it, and leave your dorky dalliances into chants only your mothers could love to Daum Hall. Your infamous “do a backflip” and “Swiffer kid” chants would have garnered eye rolls from high school freshmen. What makes you think those chants are going to enhance a collegiate basketball atmosphere? If they want a pumped up student section and loud environment, not just a venue to fulfill their social inadequacies, then the pep band needs to change their whole philosophy.

5) Win more basketball games. The team had 21 wins total for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons. The program hasn’t reached an NCAA tournament since 2006, and they haven’t won a March Madness game since 2001. What kind of fan wants to subject themselves to such torture? Enough said.

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