Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Work in progress: Talks positive for Hogs’ Little Rock games
Arkansas kicks off to Missouri as fans cheer on the Hogs during the third quarter of the Razorbacks' 24-14 loss to Missouri on Friday, Nov. 29, 2019, at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
FAYETTEVILLE -- The Arkansas Razorbacks' 24-14 loss to Missouri on Nov. 29 at War Memorial Stadium signaled a dud of an end to a remarkable run.
The season finale extended the Razorbacks' streak to 88 consecutive years of playing at least one football game in Little Rock, including 72 seasons in a row at War Memorial Stadium.
That streak will come to an end if and when the 2020 season is played, as Arkansas has seven campus home games scheduled for the first time in school history.
When Razorback football returns to Little Rock, which is scheduled to be the season finale Thanksgiving weekend of 2021 against Missouri, officials with the Arkansas Department of Parks, Tourism and Heritage which oversees War Memorial, and at the University of Arkansas are hopeful the program is in a healthier state, and a stronger effort can be made to fill the stadium.
The announced attendance at the Nov. 29 game of 33,961 fell well short of the benchmark attendance number of 47,000 outlined in the contract extension between the UA and the parks department completed in May 2018. Ticket-sales revenues came in at a little more than $1.35 million, also below the established benchmark of $2.1 million outlined in the contract.
Falling below those benchmarks can be cause for the UA to terminate the agreement, which guaranteed three games against Missouri at the venue in odd-numbered years through 2023.
However, based on the Razorbacks' second 2-10 season in a row and poor attendance figures for on-campus games at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, terminating the agreement is not even a remote consideration.
"Absolutely not," UA Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek said Thursday. "It would have been really hard for myself, our department, our university, to hold the staff at War Memorial Stadium to those ticket sale/revenue numbers when we didn't meet our own ticket sale/revenue numbers here at the stadium. So that was never part of the discussion whatsoever."
Arkansas drew a total of 322,556 fans to its six on-campus games at 76,000-seat Razorback Stadium, an average of 53,759 per game, or 70.7% of capacity.
Yurachek and UA officials hosted groups from the Arkansas Department of Parks, Tourism and Heritage, led by cabinet secretary Stacy Hurst, and from the War Memorial Stadium Commission, led by outgoing chairman Kevin Crass, in an after-action review of the 2019 game last month before the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States.
The meeting came after the SEC had opted to deny the UA's request for a waiver to play its 2020 Red-White spring football game off campus at War Memorial Stadium. Part of the May 2018 contract also called for the Razorbacks to play spring games in Little Rock in even-numbered years between 2020 and 2024, provided the SEC would agree to the waiver.
"Mr. Yurachek just re-affirmed the U of A's commitment to playing at War Memorial Stadium," Hurst said of the review. "He did again talk about the SEC's requirements regarding the Red-White game and just that they would have to work toward really a policy change before he felt certain they'd be able to play the Red-White game at War Memorial in the future. I think we all understand that.
"But it was a very positive meeting. I felt good about our partnership and look forward to working with them in the future."
Crass said the meeting's tenor was, "Hey, we know we had a situation that none of us had any control over. We didn't really focus on any issue about the game's not going to happen. It was focused on what can we do going forward to make our best effort to hit those numbers in 2021."
Said Yurachek, "We talked about some of the things we thought we could improve on, both at the stadium, how we market and sell tickets, and to make the experience really good for our student-athletes and to make the experience really good for our fans as we look forward to the 2021 game there versus Missouri."
The Razorbacks entered the finale against Missouri on an eight-game losing streak, two weeks after Yurachek's firing of Coach Chad Morris following a 45-19 home loss to Western Kentucky. The Razorbacks had competed more strongly in a 56-20 loss at No. 1 LSU the week before the Missouri game under interim Coach Barry Lunney Jr.
"The bottom line is, in light of the season we had, I was very pleased and frankly surprised we had as many people at the game as we did," Crass said. "And I think a lot of it was Barry Lunney."
Crass said his top takeaway from the meeting in Fayetteville was the need to start implementing promotional and marketing plans earlier in 2021 than they did last fall.
"It needs to be something that starts in the spring or summer of 2021 instead of October of 2021, and maybe even earlier," Crass said. "There were some ideas we had in September and October that we just couldn't execute for a lot of reasons, mainly because we got started too late."
Crass said a pregame or postgame concert, either inside or outside War Memorial Stadium, has been discussed, as has a beer garden. Both of those issues would involve more involved planning than officials had time for last fall.
However, beer sales inside War Memorial went well on game day.
"Our beer sales were through the roof," Crass said. "We sold almost $90,000 worth of beer. Now let's do the math. The crowd was what, 33,000. The beer was $5 a pop. Do the math. That's a lot of beer."
With assistance from Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the state, War Memorial Stadium has already gone through a phase of improvements that were outlined in a previous agreement between the parties. Among those improvements:
• New artificial turf was installed before last year's game
• Wireless capabilities were expanded and upgraded through the department's relationship with partner AT&T
• A command center, fed by improved and expanded security cameras that can monitor virtually all the public areas of the stadium, is on line under the stadium that brought the facility up to compliance with SEC guidelines
• Stadium audio speakers were upgraded
• The visitor's locker room received renovations
Next on the agenda is an upgrade of the home locker room.
"We finished the visitors locker room and they look great," Hurst said. "The next phase is the home locker room. Mr. Yurachek emphasized there were certain requirements we needed to meet and we certainly will.
"He just plainly said it doesn't have to be over the top, which was great to hear. We will do a great job with it. But it was nice to hear that their expectation is reasonable. So we've already got some plans in the works and will start executing on that when we can."
Arkansas' locker room at Razorback Stadium, part of the school's $160 million north end zone renovations completed in the summer of 2018, is a 15,000-square foot, football-shaped state-of-the-art environment that keeps the Razorbacks on the cutting edge in the SEC's rugged recruiting wars.
Crass said he's appreciative of Hutchinson and state officials to keep War Memorial in play for the Razorbacks and other events.
"The governor has certainly I think made it clear that he wants games played here," Crass said. "He's certainly invested a lot of the state's money to keep the stadium in the condition that it can host them."
Crass would like to see the Razorbacks' football games in Little Rock coupled with a basketball game or other events that turn the capital city into a weekend destination around Thanksgiving.
"What we'd love is to make it a weekend," he said. "So if we're here on a Friday or Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend that people come and they stay."
Hurst said officials are working to incorporate more events into the stadium.
"You know we're talking to other universities in the state about playing games there," Hurst said.
"There's some interest and conversations happening that we hope will bear some fruit there, because it's a great stadium located centrally. We're taking good care of it. We've made good improvements. I would love to see it, and I think everybody would love to see it get more use."
Sports on 04/12/2020
Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.