BLOOMINGTON — Illinois Wesleyan athletic director Mike Wagner had a Titans basketball fan inform him she had not attended a game at Shirk Center the past two seasons.
The reason? Comfort, or more precisely, a lack of comfort in the seating area of IWU’s basketball and volleyball home.
It turned out Wagner was already working on a solution.
“We’ve been blessed with Shirk Center,” Wagner said of the facility that opened in 1994. “But this is going to take the arena to the next level.”
The original bleachers have been removed from Shirk and will be replaced by a combination of chairback, seatback and bleacher seats that promise to offer more leg room and back support.
“I really think it’s going to add something we’ve been missing over the years,” said Wagner. “We’re going to have seating our fans are going to love to sit in and be comfortable throughout.”
IWU will install 277 chairback seats with a fold-up base, arms and a back rest. Those will be placed behind the scorer’s table and the team benches. Seat backs numbering 575 will feature a back rest and be installed on the remainder of the north side of the arena and in the first five rows of the south side.
The remainder of the arena will have bleacher seating with more contour to the surface that should be more forgiving to the derrieres that occupy them.
The old Shirk Center seats were 22 inches across. The new chairback and seatback areas will have a 31-inch decking with bleachers sporting either 24 or 26 inches.
A bit more color will be introduced as well. Seats with a back will be green with the bleachers gray. The seating area floor will sport a natural wood look instead of the previous gray laminate.
Larger seats will mean less seats, with capacity shrinking from 2,300 to 1,900. Yet Wagner said the possibility exists even more patrons could be accommodated, reasoning the previous seats were so narrow that many took up the equivalent of a seat and a half.
Wagner expects all Shirk seating to remain on a first-come, first-serve basis at least for the time being.
“We will make that decision this summer. We’re waiting on a few budgetary things to come through,” he said. “I would say right now we’re probably not going to change how we’ve been doing it. But I want to leave that possibility open if we feel it’s in the best interest of our program.”
If IWU sells special tickets for the new seating, the school would need additional event management staff to ensure the right person is sitting in the right seat.
A new scorer’s table will be separated from the public seating instead of being integrated into it as it was previously.
The new Shirk, which carries an estimated completion date of June 1, also will bring more convenience to workers.
“Another reason we’re changing them out is the functionality of the bleachers themselves,” said Wagner. “Sometimes we needed 15 to 20 people just to move them in and out because the hardware underneath was wearing.
"The new bleachers will allow it to be a one-person job. And the handrails are integrated into the bleachers so we don’t have to remove those.”
IWU is also doing some sprucing up while the gym is empty, painting walls and cleaning sound panels.