Wiggle room needed in War Memorial discussion

By: Harry King
Published: Friday, April 13, 2018
Fans walk into War Memorial Stadium for the Arkansas Razorbacks' spring game Saturday, April 7, 2018, in Little Rock.
Fans walk into War Memorial Stadium for the Arkansas Razorbacks' spring game Saturday, April 7, 2018, in Little Rock.

— Back and forth with a cohort about the future of Razorback football in Little Rock, the solution suddenly seemed obvious: a contract with rigid minimums for ticket revenue from games at War Memorial Stadium.

In other words, a legal “put up or shut up” between the University of Arkansas and the state Parks and Tourism Department, which oversees the stadium.

Clean. Simple.

Less than 24 hours later, Mother Nature reminded that wiggle room is mandatory in any such agreement.

A 7:30 a.m. oil change on Saturday was followed by a visit to the gym, gas station and grocery in the cold and spitting rain. Deeper in the morning, with tiny white pellets pinging off the dozen cars at an estate sale, customers inside the modest home took advantage of the half-off prices and talked about how the weather had canceled their young relatives’ introduction to Razorback football.

That afternoon, an estimated 7,000 showed up for the Red-White game, a far cry from the 30,000-plus that seemed likely based on conversations with everyday folk and the enthusiasm of callers on Little Rock radio.

The contract for Arkansas games in Little Rock ends with a game against Ole Miss on Oct. 13 and the guess is the issue of additional games will be settled in the next several weeks. If quotas are involved, the discussion should include the fact that some circumstances that affect crowd size cannot be controlled.

Personally, using ticket revenue as a base and negotiating some flexibility does not seem far-fetched.

Both sides know the numbers:

—At War Memorial, ticket revenue from the Georgia game in 2014 was $3.2 million and from the Mississippi State game in 2013 was $2.7 million.

—At Fayetteville, ticket revenue from SEC games averaged $4.0 million in 2013, $3.9 million in both 2014 and 2015, and $4.6 million in 2016.

—At War Memorial, ticket revenue from games vs. FCS opponents was $1.3 million last year and $1.6 million in 2016.

—At Fayetteville, ticket revenue from five games vs. FCS opponents averaged $3.4 million to $3.8 million between 2010 and 2015.

A compromise — maybe an average dollar figure per game for the length of the contract — is doable. Whatever the details, there must be some leeway if a poor crowd results from horrendous weather or if a 3-8 Arkansas team comes to town to play Missouri.

If the two sides do agree, the contract should be a minimum of six years. First, anything less is kicking the can down the road. Second, three SEC games and three non-conference games during the period would provide data for a true read on the support. Third, Arkansas’ contract to play Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas, ends in 2024 and the series could return to home-and-home, enabling scheduling flexibility.

Considering the disparity in ticket revenue between games in Little Rock and Fayetteville, the go-ahead for Arkansas playing in Little Rock can’t be based solely on economics. Somebody creative might call the $1.5 million or so the cost of state unity and the tab for nostalgia.

A story from former Razorback and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones illustrates the latter commodity. When games at War Memorial came up in a recent conversation with an acquaintance from Little Rock, Jones raved about a great memory of the stadium.

Opening the perfect 1964 season by beating Oklahoma State 14-10 or defeating Baylor four weeks later?

Neither. Before that, Jones was a Boy Scout selling bottles of Coke at an Ole Miss game. He went on and on about the electric atmosphere of Razorbacks vs. Rebels and admitted putting down his tray, heavy with ice, and watching the first half while seated on steps in the stands.

Eventually, the Scoutmaster spotted Jones and banished him to sell in the end zone where the view was not so good.

Like Jones, thousands were introduced to Razorback football at War Memorial.

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