I traveled to Iowa City to see my first “away” Cy-Hawk game in Kinnick Stadium in 1996. I was 12 years old at the time and had grown up attending both Iowa State and Iowa games. My family was the classic Iowa “House Divided” crew. My dad, an Iowa State alum. My mom, a University of Iowa grad. My mom grew up a few blocks from Kinnick Stadium as my grandfather was a professor at Iowa. I was even born at University Hospital in Iowa City on a Friday in September, 1984. Hayden Fry and his 5th ranked Hawkeyes lost to Penn State across the street the next day.
But for some reason I became a Cyclone fan as a kid, probably because Ames was closer to our home in Des Moines and Cyclone football tickets were essentially given away like Tootsie Rolls at a parade back in the 90s.
The game in Iowa City in 1996 wasn’t expected to be close and it wasn’t. Iowa and Tavian Banks housed Iowa State 38-13 to extend the Hawkeyes Cy-Hawk winning streak to 14 games. Troy Davis finished with 150 yards in the loss, but that was about the only highlight for the Cardinal and Gold that day.
Beyond what happened on the field, experiencing Kinnick that day was awe-inspiring. The walk along Melrose Avenue was incredible. The vendors, the tailgaters, the big-ass turkey legs. The 70,000 fans packed in to what felt like 50,000 seats. The noise and the I-O-W-A chants, it was nothing like I had experienced in Ames up to that point. This was college football on another level. Iowa State seemed light-years away from playing in the same ballpark. The Cyclones felt like a JV program compared to the varsity across the state. The schools themselves were different as well, Iowa was older and the flagship university in the state with thousands more students, Iowa State took a back-seat.
The numbers reflected that.
In 1996, Iowa averaged over 70,000 fans per game with multiple sell-outs, Iowa State averaged a shade over 40,000 with zero sell-outs. And that was the best home attendance (because of Troy Davis) for Iowa State in a decade.
Iowa had an enrollment in fall of 1996 of 27,921 students and Iowa State less than 25,000. In the mid-late 90s, it was a Hawkeye State in pretty much every single way.
Fast forward 20 years and the state of affairs has shifted. Iowa State has grown up considerably.
In the fall of 2017, Iowa State’s enrollment was 36,321, now the largest University in the state of Iowa. Iowa’s 2017 enrollment was 33,564. The general admission requirements for high school students in the state of Iowa are the same at both schools as established by the Iowa Board of Regents.
Also reflective of a shift in the state is the amount of alumni from each university that have stayed in the state. According to both schools’ extension offices, Iowa State currently has 106,710 alumni that live in Iowa, Iowa has 91,775.
And particularly insightful is this illustration from the Iowa State Alumni Association that shows the demographics of the state by county as of 2017.
In central Iowa, the gap is widening in Iowa State’s favor. Iowa State nearly doubles Iowa grads in Iowa’s largest county, Polk (Iowa State: 28,411; Iowa: 14,458).
This isn’t to say that Iowa is doing something wrong. Iowa maintains its great reputation academically and the football program has been steady and consistent over that 20-plus year period, but Iowa State’s substantial growth is noteworthy. The edge in enrollment and alumni in the state now rests with Iowa State. A fact most folks probably wouldn’t guess currently, and a fact that seemed incomprehensible in the 90s.
But how does this relate to football and fans of each school? There seems to be a correlation.
The caveat being there are exponentially more fans of each school than alumni so there is no perfect measure of fandom. I believe any logical Iowan would say there is a larger percentage of Hawkeye fans that didn’t graduate from Iowa than Cyclone fans that graduated from Iowa State. And being an alumni doesn’t automatically make you a fan either. But the evidence empirically and anecdotally says the gap in fandom has narrowed considerably since the 90s.
Iowa State has had 45 games in a row of attendance at 50,000 fans or more. During the 2008 season, Iowa State didn’t have a single game with 50,000 plus attendance.
Iowa had a sell-out streak of 36 home games snapped in 2008. Since the start of the 2013 season, Iowa has had a total of six sell-outs in 33 potential games (two of those were against Iowa State with a third coming Saturday).
Last season, Iowa State averaged 57,931 fans per game at Jack Trice Stadium and had three sell-outs. Iowa averaged 66,337 fans and had no sell-outs. Each team won eight games.
Iowa State expanded its stadium to 61,500 in 2015 to accommodate demand, Iowa’s current renovation is actually removing raw seat totals from Kinnick, reducing capacity from 70,585 to somewhere near 69,000.
This is not disputing that Iowa still has an edge in fans or that their game-day atmosphere isn’t terrific. Kinnick remains an outstanding environment for football. It’s just that Iowa State is no longer the same little brother from the 1990s. Iowa State’s atmosphere, which was once a tailgate with a football game mixed in, has now turned into a legitimate all-day event. The environment surrounding the TCU game in October was as good as I’ve seen in person.
Now, what once was a gap of nearly 30,000 fans per home game 15 years ago, is closer to 10,000. Iowa State is gaining ground in the state at a rapid pace and it has done so with mediocre football.
What happens if Iowa State starts to win at the same rate Iowa has?
With more students, more alumni in the state and a football program on the rise, the trend is likely to continue. Iowa State may never “catch” Iowa fan-wise, but those guys and gals in Ames are more of a factor in the state than ever before. Something nobody that grew up in Iowa in the 90s could fathom to this degree.
Perhaps Jamie Pollard’s strategically placed “It’s a Cyclone State” billboard back in 2006 was actually a sign of things to come.