Matt Jones is the editor of the Hawgs Sports Network. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy. He has a bachelor's and master's degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas.
Hogs hopeful game-day changes will make attending games more attractive
Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek is shown during a football game against Eastern Illinois on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — From beer to better WiFi, fans attending Arkansas' home football games this season should notice several differences from past years.
Hunter Yurachek, the Razorbacks' second-year athletics director, charged his staff with improving the football game-day experience shortly after the 2018 season, his first at Arkansas. Yurachek formed three committees that totaled around 30 people to look at every aspect of the Razorbacks' game-day experience.
"There was a lot of repetition in what we did," Yurachek said earlier this year. "If you were a fan and came to the games, you knew that at the first quarter timeout that this was going to happen, the second quarter timeout this was going to happen."
Yurachek said his charge was to use "the flow of the game to create a game-day atmosphere - how you celebrate a touchdown and a field goal and a big stop is not so repetitive."
The day-to-day task of improving Arkansas' game days fell upon Rick Thorpe, who was hired earlier this year as the Razorbacks' deputy athletics director for external engagement. Thorpe previously has worked at Rutgers, Georgia Tech, UCLA, Connecticut and Vanderbilt.
Thorpe and his team spent seven months reading through fan surveys about what they liked and didn't like about game days - not only at Arkansas, but across the Southeastern Conference - then implemented changes that will be unveiled prior to and during Saturday's game between the Razorbacks and Portland State.
For starters, Arkansas will permit the sale of alcohol inside the stadium for the first time. The Razorbacks are one of five SEC teams that are allowing alcohol sales following an SEC ban on alcohol sales earlier this year.
Among the other notable additions or changes from recent years:
• A street festival called "Hog Town" will begin at 11 a.m. on Maple Street, just north of Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The street festival will include a different live band each week, as well as food trucks, a beer garden, vendors and areas for children including inflatables and face painters. Hog Town will shut down three lanes on Maple Street, but one lane will remain open to accommodate vehicles with parking passes on the north side of the stadium.
• Two hours and 40 minutes prior to each game, the Razorback Marching Band will parade from the Walker Pavilion on the south side of the stadium to the street festival on the north end. The band will perform a concert in Hog Town and will be in place as the football team goes through its pregame "Hog Walk" into the stadium. The Hog Walk, which begins about two hours prior to kickoff each game, will start farther north, at the Tyson Poultry Science Building, and will trek through tailgating areas and the street festival. The street festival will begin to shut down 30 minutes prior to kickoff.
• An all-sports museum has been constructed inside the Broyles Center on the stadium's north end that will open at 10 a.m. Saturday. It will close around 11:30 a.m. to accommodate the Hog Walk, then will reopen with an entrance from inside the stadium's north concourse at 1 p.m.
• Inside the stadium, WiFi will be available to everyone. The improved WiFi was a component in Arkansas re-signing with IMG College (now Learfield IMG College) in 2017 - a 10-year agreement worth $137 million that included $6 million earmarked for WiFi enhancements. The Razorbacks tested the WiFi service during the spring during baseball games at Baum-Walker Stadium and received positive feedback about its functionality.
• For families with toddlers or infants, all restrooms now have diaper changing stations. There will also be designated nursing areas for mothers inside the stadium and stroller drop-off and retrieval points outside the stadium.
• After kickoff, on-field presentations will be shortened and limited to current or past athletes. Presentations will end by the beginning of the fourth quarter.
"When we do have a presentation, let's make it around 30 seconds and let's enter the timeout with some music and something that's engaging," Yurachek said, "let the fans sit down for 30 seconds while we have this presentation and let's get them back on up as the game gets ready to come back."
"We’re really looking at pressing the right button and being intentional," Thorpe said.
Yurachek said he hopes the activity on the stadium's north side becomes "a central gathering space" for fans.
"You're trying to create an experience from the minute they step on your campus," Yurachek said. "The football game is a part of that experience, but you're investing really a whole day."
Members of Arkansas' staff studied trends happening elsewhere in college football, notably at Texas where athletics director Chris Del Conte oversaw several changes for the 2018 season that drastically changed the Longhorns' game-day atmosphere, which were noted in a Sports Illustrated article.
Yurachek sent members of Arkansas' administration to Austin for a Texas game late last season.
"It's about an experience," Yurachek said. 'There is a generation that does not want to just focus on what is happening on the football field for three-and-a-half hours, so you have to create an event within an event and create a great game-day experience for all your fans.
"The students are a big part of this, and not just for the four years they are here. If students had the experience of coming to games while they were a student at the University of Arkansas, they're our future season-ticket holders, our future donors and are going to come back with their future children and grandchildren. They are our future, but if you don't have that experience as a student while you're here at the University of Arkansas, we're going to have a hard time getting you to come back as an alum. You come back as an alum because you enjoyed that experience and because you have a passion for the Razorbacks."
While it is available to everyone, the improved WiFi is particularly focused on the younger crowd that wants to share their experience through social media. Through its mobile app, Arkansas has developed some different ways to interact with fans during the game, including a feature called predictive gaming. For night games, phones connected to WiFi can be used for a synchronized mobile light show and there will be mobile charging stations throughout the stadium - all features the Razorbacks hope to incorporate at their other home venues moving forward.
"WiFi is a big part of the game-day experience nowadays," Thorpe said. "We rolled it out at baseball and it was great for our fan base and great for the analytics we were able to secure to better understand our fans so we can better service our fans and provide them the best game-day experience possible.
"It’s going to allow us to do a number of different things from a technology standpoint."
The museum is one component that Arkansas' administration is hopeful will keep fans engaged with the stadium on non-game days as well. The construction of the $2 million Wild Band of Razorbacks monument on the stadium's northeast side has become a popular attraction, with fans and tourists frequently stopping to have their picture taken next to the statue.
Hoping to capitalize on that foot traffic, the Razorbacks earlier this month permanently moved the official team store, Hog Heaven, from Bud Walton Arena to the north side of Razorback Stadium. The team store was also updated to include more merchandise, including a women's boutique and a customization area.
"It will make it as convenient for fans as possible to have one feature location to visit," Thorpe said.
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