Tickets to Iowa State men's basketball games were hard to land for Cyclones' fans this year, but they were easier for one group: legislators being entertained by University President Steven Leath.
Ten lawmakers accepted invitations to sit with Leath courtside at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, including House Speaker Linda Upmeyer and education appropriations subcommittee chairman Rep. Cecil Dolecheck, a review by The Associated Press shows. While legislators paid a face value for their tickets ranging from $25 to $50, comparable seats are usually only available to donors or cost far more through ticket brokers.
Lawmakers avoided fees of $4 to $6 apiece assessed on tickets bought by phone and online, the way most fans acquire them. They could also access the stadium sports bar usually open only to top donors, where soda and appetizers are free and alcohol is sold.
Lawmakers denied that the arrangement violates Iowa's gift law, which bars them from taking anything worth $3 from those trying to influence legislation. They argued the courtside seats were not gifts, since they paid the same face value price as an average fan in the stands. Besides, said Rep. Chip Baltimore, "they're kind of crappy seats."
"First of all, you get hit with balls and players as they come out of bounds. Second, you can't see much except for under the basket where you're sitting," said the Boone Republican, who paid $50 for a pair to attend the conference home opener against Texas Tech. Joking, he added: "If President Leath wanted to influence us, he'd sit us five rows up right at the mid-court line behind the scorers' table."
Leath said he uses his allotment of tickets to connect with donors, alumni, lawmakers and business partners.
"It's a really effective way to get university business done and give them a reward of getting them to go to the game," he said.
Dolecheck, a Mount Ayr Republican whose subcommittee oversees Iowa State's budget, landed the most valuable ticket.
The Iowa State alum paid $50 to watch the Cyclones play No. 1 Oklahoma on Jan. 18 in a highly anticipated showdown. Fans rushed the court after Iowa State pulled out a thrilling victory, its first win against a top-ranked team since 1957. Courtside seats for that game went for several hundred dollars apiece online.
Leath said he had a philosophical discussion with Dolecheck at the game about managing the school's growth, including whether to increase tuition or admissions standards if it becomes hard to sustain.
With Dolecheck's backing, lawmakers last month increased Iowa State's budget by 1.2 percent, which was less than it requested but double the percentage increase received by University of Iowa. Supporters say ISU deserved a larger increase because it educates more students from Iowa.
Dolecheck didn't return messages. Others who attended games, including Upmeyer, House Minority Leader Mark Smith and Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix, called the arrangement appropriate.
Dix praised Leath for building relationships with both parties. "I was happy to accept his invitation," said Dix, who took one of his teenage sons.
University presidents have long entertained lawmakers at athletic events, but Leath says he is more aggressive at outreach than his predecessors. He used twice as many tickets on lawmakers this year than last year, even as their constituents had a harder time finding seats.
With expectations high, Iowa State sold out season tickets for the second time in school history. Single-game tickets were gone within hours of going on sale last October. Many fans had to turn to online brokers and scalpers for seats, often at major markups.
To be eligible to buy season tickets courtside, fans have to donate $5,000 annually to the Cyclone Club, buy at least two seats for $2,500 apiece and commit to doing so for three years. Those tickets often fetched $200 or more through sites such as StubHub.
After Leath became president in 2012, he gave up 10 traditional seats that his office controlled so they could be sold. Instead, he set up a new table where he and his wife sit with guests along one baseline. He said he meets with aides before the season to determine who should get invitations.
Leath said he was aware that many would enjoy the perk. For the first time this season, he occasionally stunned fans sitting high in 14,000-seat Hilton by asking them to join his table.
"I thought this opportunity ought to be extended to other people, especially good loyal supporters of Iowa State," he said. "People are hugely appreciative of it."
Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rjfoley