University of Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long’s announcement last week that the Razorbacks will play only one game at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium for the next five years – with no guarantee of any games after that – was a big deal.
It was a big deal because the Razorbacks have been playing games there since the stadium opened in 1948. With a capacity of 54,120 and assuming the vast majority of attendees are from this state, when the Razorbacks are in town about one out of every 60 Arkansans is sitting in those stands.
But it is not as big a deal as it would have been when the Razorbacks were playing three and four games in Little Rock. Two years ago, that number was reduced to two games.
This move had to have been on Long’s to-do list when he accepted the athletic director’s position in 2007, if nothing more than because of the economics. According to Long, the athletic program’s revenues are reduced by more than a million bucks every time a game is played in Little Rock instead of Fayetteville, where another 18,000 fans can be seated.
There are other costs. Winning in college football these days is about recruiting, and recruits would rather play in an SEC-quality stadium on campus than ride a bus three hours to play in front of 54,000 fans – assuming the stadium is full, which, this year, it wasn’t. Recruiting is a big reason why the Razorbacks are playing Texas A&M in Cowboys Stadium until 2024, with half of those games being "home" games. Playing there gets the team in front of the eyes of Texas, the state that has cultivated so many great Razorbacks through the years. The Razorbacks are playing Texas Tech the next two years as well.
Coach Bret Bielema said this year that playing in War Memorial is equivalent to playing a road game. While the fans are cheering, the coaches still must travel and set up shop in a distant location with their student-athletes.
And the first part of that last hyphenated word is what’s been missing from much of the discussion: student. Many Arkansans tend to think of the University of Arkansas as a team. It’s not. It’s a school with a team. Even in the SEC, most of the players are playing to get an education, and traveling to Little Rock disrupts that.
Finally, there are the more than 24,000 University of Arkansas students who don’t play for the Razorbacks. This is supposed to be their team, and on-campus games are supposed to be part of their college experience. They should go to pep rallies on Friday night and then walk to the stadium to see their classmates play the next day – not spend a day driving back and forth to Little Rock.
There are good reasons beyond tradition to continue playing games in Little Rock. It connects a program located in Arkansas’ far northwest corner with the rest of the state. Taxpayers across the state, not just those in the northwest corner, support the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
But it is the University of Arkansas AT Fayetteville. Either the team and the students can travel for the fans’ convenience, or the fans can travel for theirs. Traditionally, the team and students have traveled, but times change, and when they do, so should traditions. Playing on campus is better for the program, for the players, for recruiting, and for the students. Keeping one game in Little Rock maintains the school’s connection with the rest of the state and makes it easier for far-flung fans to see one game a year.
So, for now, playing one game in Little Rock is probably about right.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.