OPINION :

A challenging season opener

By: Rex Nelson
Published: Sunday, August 27, 2017
Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema talks with athletic director Jeff Long during Arkansas' game against No. 1 Alabama on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016.
Photo by Jason Ivester
Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema talks with athletic director Jeff Long during Arkansas' game against No. 1 Alabama on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016.

On Thursday night, the University of Arkansas Razorbacks will open their 2017 football season at Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium against an out-manned Florida A&M squad. The game shouldn't be close. If it is, you can bet that it's going to be a long season for Razorback fans.

A Thursday game in Little Rock presents its own set of challenges. Stadium traffic combined with the normal afternoon rush hour in the capital city will make for slow going in neighborhoods surrounding the stadium. Many of the people who look forward to tailgate parties on the War Memorial Park golf course--especially those from south and east Arkansas who don't often make the trip to Fayetteville--will be unable to take an entire day off work. They will arrive just in time for the game or more likely they won't make the trip to Little Rock at all.

Conspiracy theorists claim that the Thursday night slot and the no-name opponent is the university's way of ensuring that the stadium isn't sold out. When the current contract between the UA and War Memorial Stadium ends next year (the Razorbacks are obligated to play a Southeastern Conference opponent in Little Rock in 2018), the conspiracy theorists contend that athletic department officials will point to empty seats in Little Rock as one reason for not signing a new contract.

I don't believe in conspiracy theories, but I know this much: If the decision is left to Jeff Long, the athletic director, Little Rock games will be a thing of the past following 2018. Athletic directors from the so-called Power Five conferences are all about earning as much money as possible so they can add to the edifice complex in the hypocritical world of big-time college sports--a world where professional athletes in training (though the schools refuse to pay them for the millions of dollars in revenue they help their institutions earn) must always be referred to as student-athletes and where the glorious lairs where they hang out take on names such as academic success centers. If you don't believe that Arkansas has an edifice complex, take a look at the current $160 million expansion in Fayetteville, taking place even though the school often has trouble selling out the 72,000 seats it has now.

Former U.S. Sen. David Pryor, a member of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees, fought a lonely battle last year against the massive expansion. He spoke out against the "nuclear arms race" in college athletics and urged his fellow board members in vain to put academics first. Pryor said at the time: "As you know, the stadium expansion will be the largest bond issue in the history of higher education for the state of Arkansas. It is a monumental commitment of resources, and to some extent, our board will be establishing by our support that a few luxury boxes and special seats in a football stadium used six times a year is the highest priority for the institution we all revere and serve. I personally do not believe this project is the highest priority for the University of Arkansas."

Pryor added: "Some have recently said that this addition will help with recruitment in enticing prospective Razorbacks to Fayetteville. Do any of us actually believe than an 18-year-old from Conway, Judsonia or Smackover really cares or is impressed by the fact that we have 75,000 stadium seats rather than 72,000?"

That brings us back to War Memorial Stadium. You often hear that the UA loses money when it plays in Little Rock. It would be more accurate to say that the university makes less money than it would make if the game were played at Fayetteville. In recent years, as the school's enrollment has grown quickly, a majority of freshman class members have come from outside Arkansas. Because of the huge influx of Texans on campus, some people now jokingly refer to the school as the University of Texas at Fayetteville. UA board members are sensitive to that situation. They're beginning to ask if the university still appeals as much as it once did to young people in east and south Arkansas. Playing Razorback football games at Little Rock traditionally has been a part of the university's strategy to connect with families who live far from the Fayetteville campus. Those games are a part of our state's cultural fabric.

Due to the enormous sums SEC schools now receive for television rights, the athletic department is rolling in money. Despite what you hear from UA administrators, per-game revenue isn't as big an issue as it once was. Arkansas can afford to make a little less money playing in Little Rock if it's determined that a Little Rock game would better advance the overall goals of the university. The decision to extend the contract past 2018 must be made by the trustees--who are charged by the governor who appointed them with looking at the big picture--rather than being made by campus-focused administrators.

I see no reason why Arkansas can't continue to play a game each year at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, along with playing a Little Rock game. If, however, the choice were to come down between Arlington or Little Rock, trustees would need to ask: Is it more important to have a game each year in an adjoining state or in the largest city in the state in which the university is located if the goal is to ensure that the UA is truly a flagship university representing 75 counties?

Whatever decision is made regarding Little Rock games after 2018, that decision belongs to the trustees. If they leave it up to Fayetteville-based administrators, they will have abdicated their responsibilities in the worst possible way.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 08/27/2017

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