State of the Cyclones: Iowa State finds stability, extends footprint


The field stands empty at Jack Trice Stadium before the game against Oklahoma State Friday, Nov. 18. Several hours later, the field was filled with students and fans celebrating the win over No. 2 Oklahoma State. Iowa State won with a score of 37-31, making them eligible for a bowl game.

Alex Halsted

There was a time, not even a decade ago, when ISU Athletic Director Jamie Pollard could look out his office window overlooking Jack Trice Stadium and see an abundance of empty seats on game day.

When Saturday rolls around and the lights flicker on for the season opener against Northern Iowa, fans will pour into a sold out stadium. The Cyclones enter the season with 13 consecutive games attended by more than 50,000 fans.

“We’ve kind of grown it organically, because we haven’t had, ‘Wow, we just won the Big 12, so now everybody wants to be a part of it,’” Pollard said. “We’ve grown it by, ‘OK, we’re improving, come get involved.’”

The average attendance per game for ISU football has risen by more than 16 percent since Pollard arrived in 2005. Season tickets then sat around 22,000, compared to more than 43,000 that the program passed this month.

The growth doesn’t rest solely in football. Iowa State has also seen substantial growth in attendance to men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball, too.

“We’ve created a culture within this athletic department that mirrors what Iowans expect,” Pollard said. “Think about it: agriculture, farms, families. It isn’t just about, ‘Well Johnny is my best son.’ It’s our whole family.”

Recent years have brought questions and worry from fans about where Iowa State might land in conference realignment before the Big 12 settled with 10 members. All appears stable now with a TV contract and revenue streams at an all-time high.

Iowa State will launch on cable television across the state this week, and the program’s visibility is higher than ever.

That doesn’t mean Iowa State has made it. Pollard remembers those darker days, and he knows there is room for improvement.

“We’ve got a long ways to still go competitively,” Pollard said. “When I think of 2020, where are we seven years from now? I’d like to think we’d have more athletic success.

“We’ve spent the last seven years coming out of being basically, athletically, the worst program in the Big 12, because we were.”

There is a feeling from Pollard that the Cyclones have moved up a few notches. The focus now has turned to how the program will take the next step.

Extending the footprint with TV

Early on in his tenure as Iowa State’s president, Steven Leath was reminded by a fan in Northeast Iowa that, just a few years ago, a televised Cyclones game was hard to come by in many parts of the state.

The Big 12’s TV contract has pushed Iowa State onto various Fox networks, along with ESPN. Last year Iowa State made $22 million from TV revenue, and that number is expected to jump to more than $30 million in the coming years.

The Cyclones also own the rights to one network football game per season, multiple men’s basketball games and all other sports.

“The Big Ten Network was an awesome idea,” Pollard said. “I was there at Wisconsin when it happened. It was a new frontier, and they made a lot of money, but how they did it was they gave up all their rights.”

Iowa State has taken advantage of owning its right with, an online pay-to-watch channel. That will culminate Saturday when the Northern Iowa game officially launches onto Mediacom.

The new channel will extend Iowa State’s footprint into 500,000 homes across the state. The channel will be available on Mediacom channel 165 in standard definition and 798 in high definition.

“It gives us a platform that others don’t have,” Pollard said.

Big 12 content with 10

When Missouri and Texas A&M announced their departures from the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference in 2011, the conference appeared to be in danger of collapsing.

Rumors spread of other Big 12 institutions bolting, and many wondered where Iowa State might end up.

“You think about the cliff we were looking at three years ago, and going, ‘Are we going to get pushed off this cliff?’” Pollard said. “It’s pretty neat to think this is how it turned out.”

The Big 12 added West Virginia and Texas Christian to return to 10 institutions. That is a number with which the conference is happy.

“We’re in pretty good shape right now in terms of morale, direction and vision,” Leath said of the conference. “I’m not saying we’ll never expand, but right now there’s not a great motivation.”

Pollard said expansion hasn’t been on a Big 12 meeting agenda in the last year.

While some conferences have gotten bigger, such as the Big Ten with 14 teams, Pollard likes that Iowa State is able to play every team in the conference.

“To me, it’s mind-boggling that Iowa is going to play a football schedule [next] year and they’re not playing Penn State, Ohio State or Michigan,” Pollard said. “That just doesn’t seem right.

“What I do know in our league is whoever is representing us in the BCS will have played everybody. And our fans will get to see everybody.”

Facilities highlight rise; Gateway Project lingers

There is a drawer on Pollard’s desk where he keeps all of the new facility presentations from his tenure.

In the last eight years, Iowa State has spent more than $100 million on facilities, including a new track, soccer and softball complex that opened last year.

“We’ve come a long ways,” Pollard said. “When I try to remember them all, I usually end up forgetting some.”

The next upgrade that lingers is what Pollard refers to as the Gateway Project. He laughs as he looks out to the south endzone, which fans have clamored to see bowled in.

“If we could afford it, yeah, we could do seating,” Pollard said. “But if we do that, we may be stuck. We put in more seating, we have to address where all those people are going to park, what are we doing to Reiman Gardens, what are we doing with the entrance to campus?”

Pollard would love to see the project move forward, but he knows it is about more than bowling-in an end zone. Leath said he thinks the project will eventually happen, mentioning the current low interest rates.

“If you’re going to do a project like that, you’d rather do it when you can get the money cheaply,” Leath said. “So we are looking very seriously as to what the plans would be over the next couple of years.”

As has been learned with the growth of the entire athletic department, things take time. The common goal is to get it right the first time.

“We don’t want to do this twice,” Leath said. “It’s going to be a very big, expensive project. You want to get it right.”