Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
Jan. 26, 1996

The right person for a tough job

by Steve Jones

There's no sign above Joan Bowles' office door that reads "Complaints," but one would not be too out of place.

As the athletic department's coordinator of annual giving, Bowles responded to a lot of the questioning, complaining and even some shouting from Cyclone fans not pleased with the priority seating plan for football and men's basketball. She and other athletic development and ticket office staff members got to explain the plan in two waves--before both the football and basketball seasons.

Developed a few years ago, priority seating was fully implemented this academic year. It gives those making the largest annual donations to the athletic department the choicest seats in Cyclone Stadium-Jack Trice Field and Hilton Coliseum. The aim is to increase annual giving to the National Cyclone Club.

Among those pleased with the plan were ticket holders donating $1,500 annually and sitting in an area for $500 donors. They could move to better seats if they preferred.

However, more fans were affected because their donations fell below the amount required to remain in their seats. These fans were given two options--increase their yearly donations or move to other seats. Fans also could give up their season tickets, which some did.

Bowles said many of the calls and letters she received simply asked for clarification. "A lot of times, fans understood the policy, but they wanted to hear it explained from someone," she said.

"But not everyone agreed with our philosophy of making annual gifts the top priority in assigning seat locations," Bowles added.

Many argued that because of special circumstances, they should be exempt. Some thought their gifts to other university departments should count toward athletics. Others didn't expect the university to actually go through with the plan.

Perhaps the biggest complaint came from fans who believed their loyalty, particularly their many years of buying season tickets, was being ignored.

Not so, say ISU officials. It's just that the annual giving program, which brings in $2 million a year, is an important athletic revenue source, paying for student-athlete scholarships and operating expenses.

Faculty and staff tickets to football and men's basketball games were not affected by the priority seating plan.

Athletic director Gene Smith said Bowles handled the situation well, calmly explaining the department's policy.

"Joan did a great job," Smith said. "She's a customer-oriented person who takes care of our fans' needs."

"It was an emotional issue for some ticket holders," Bowles said.

One of the more frustrating things for Bowles and others was keeping up with the deluge of calls and letters.

"Each situation was a little different, so there were no canned answers," she said. "It took a lot of explaining from all of us."

Iowa State's priority seating plan is not unique. Several other schools have one, including Minnesota, Southern California and Nebraska. Bowles said a number of other schools looking at establishing seating plans have contacted her for information.

Prior to implementing the plan, ISU athletic officials held focus groups and talked to a number of individuals and organizations. They wanted to learn the best way to take care of seating inequities. Officials mulled several ideas, including a "pay-per-seat" plan that would charge more for better seats and less for the far corners. In the end, the consensus pointed to priority seating.

Has the plan worked? Bowles believes it has, although she said it would be nearly impossible to connect increased or canceled donations directly to priority seating. However, one key giving level, the Captains level, made up of those making annual donations of $2,500, has almost doubled, to 315 members.

Some ISU fans thought the athletic department should have waited to implement priority seating until the football program improves and Cyclone Stadium seats become a hot commodity. But Bowles said the department wanted to be ahead of the game.

"Now we have all our policies and procedures and we're ready for our anticipated winning football," she said.

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Revised 1/26/96