When I first came to the state of Arkansas from Florida and stepped onto campus in Fayetteville for the first time, in the fall of 1987, it was a whole new world – but one I immediately fell in love with.
That first week, meeting my new dorm-mates in Gregson Hall was quite a learning experience and a definite eye-opener. I could not wait to attend my first Razorback football game the following week, the home-opener against Tulsa. When I went to purchase my student season tickets, I was informed that the booklet included the three games in Fayetteville and the three games in Little Rock.
Still, half-clueless, I asked how far Little Rock was. Then was shocked to hear, “About three hours, if you take the Pig Trail.” Interstate 49 was only a visual plan at that point. But how was a freshman with no vehicle and little spending money supposed to get to Central Arkansas three times in the fall? Fortunately, I met some friends with cars, chipped in for gas, and made it happen. And our regular stops at Whatta-Burger in Russellville, on the way down, always helped softened the blow.
But I was still dumbfounded – three “home” games, three hours away? I was told Little Rock was where all the “big money” was, so the university felt obligated to appease the high-rollers. I had never heard of such a thing. I knew Alabama played one game a year in Birmingham, about an hour away from campus, and Ole Miss played one game in Jackson, about three hours away, also to schmooze the big wigs.
Now, with multi-million-dollar facilities on campuses across the nation, in addition to the current rules for “on-campus” recruiting, nearly every major college football program plays all their home games on campus, or somewhere close to it. Except for the University of Arkansas. Granted, it dwindled to one game a year, to now, one game every other year. But the fight rages on.
Razorback Stadium was originally constructed in 1937, under the name Bailey Stadium. It was renamed Razorback Stadium in 1941, and through the years expansion and improvements have continued to be made. In 1984, the stadium was expended to 51,000 seats at a cost of over $7 million. In 1999, it grew to 70,000, with additional concession stands and other amenities, at a cost of $75 million. Two years later, another $110 million was spent to add more seating, including club seats, additional skyboxes and a revamped pressbox. The most recent improvements occurred in 2018 at a cost $160 million, which enclosed the north endzone, added giant video screens on both ends, and provided a phenomenal locker room, weight room and recreational facility for the players – a much-needed recruiting tool.
The current capacity at Razorback Stadium is 76,212, often filled when the team is competitive, while the capacity at War Memorial is only 54,120. The announced attendance for Saturday’s game against Western Carolina was just over 44,000, roughly 80 percent. Not to mention, the 75-year-old stadium, the locker rooms and concession stands are predated and dilapidated. Even the national television networks have had issues broadcasting games there, which has led to less lucrative exposure in the past.
And although games in War Memorial are classified as “home” games, the NCAA has a different view, and limits the coaches’ contact with recruits, a definite hindrance in today’s competitive recruiting wars.
So, why keep playing games in Little Rock? Walmart and other Fortune 500 companies have assured that the real “big money” now resides in Northwest Arkansas, which is also ranked in the Top 5 of “Best Places to Live in America,” by US News & World Report. I believe the only list Little Rock appears on is “Crimes Per Capita.” No joke.
And please don’t compare it to the home-and-home series Arkansas has with Texas A&M in Dallas. First, that requires both teams to sacrifice a home game every other year and prevents the Hogs from having to go to hostile Kyle Field. It is also a highly publicized event, played in one of the country’s most luxurious NFL stadiums — which current players and potential recruits absolutely love. Not only is the stadium owned by arguably the biggest Razorback donor on the planet, but the game showcases the Hogs in the Dallas Metroplex, one of the nation’s hotbeds for recruiting.
So, is the UA obligated to play in Little Rock just to be fair to the people of Central Arkansas who support the Hogs, but don’t want to travel? Any other fan base in the country, particularly at the Power 5 level, often has to travel a distance to watch their team play at home. I do not see Oklahoma catering to its fans in Tulsa with a “home” game. You will not see Alabama playing in Mobile’s Ladd Peebles Stadium. Heck, LSU doesn’t even travel to the Superdome in New Orleans, where they have a huge fan base and boosters.
Little Rock games cost the university millions of dollars. Players do not get excited to travel and play in a run-down, unfamiliar stadium, with the possible few exceptions of the ones who have family and went to high school there. And according to the Twitter feeds I read Saturday, fans frankly don’t seem to have that great of an experience.
It just no longer makes common sense to keep sacrificing a true home game, for no reward. I agree, it’s unfortunate for some fans around the state, but the University of Arkansas is located in Fayetteville. Our majestic stadium sits proudly along Razorback Road. That’s home.