This is not an easy thing for me to write. It’s not something I ever wanted to do. And, frankly, never thought I would write, but I’m breaking up with War Memorial.
Like many Razorback fans, I grew up going to games in War Memorial Stadium. I spent my entire childhood and high school years in Little Rock. We rarely went to games in Fayetteville. It wasn’t until I got older and became more of a die-hard fan that I began traveling to Razorback Stadium with any consistency.
And to this day, I love going to games at War Memorial. I’ve never not had a great time. The tailgating on the golf course is superior to many SEC venues. I have just as much fun in the stadium during the game as any other place, even much larger stadiums. If the world was all about me, plenty of games would be played there and everyone would love it.
But it’s time for the Razorbacks to break up with War Memorial.
The Razorbacks didn’t perform as well against Samford as they did against Louisiana, but instead of dominating the discussion with talk of play calling or the passing game or the offensive line or the defense, way too much angry vitriol was directed toward Little Rock – the fans, the stadium, everything as if it was somehow Little Rock’s fault. It’s unhealthy. It’s unnecessary. And the only way it will ever get better is for the games to move to Fayetteville.
Not that that’s the only reason to move them. Fans already know the reasons. The Razorbacks make more money from games in Fayetteville from extra ticket sales, suites, concessions, merchandise, not having to pay rent, etc. They can host recruits on official visits. It’s on campus and can accommodate more students. The larger stadium comes across better on television (except for shots of the north end zone). I-540 and XNA make it much easier to get to Fayetteville than it used to be, and now that every game is on TV, playing games in central Arkansas isn’t as necessary to expose the program to fans throughout the state as it once was.
All of those reasons are valid and strong enough to win the debate on their own. And no, I don’t include the travel aspect in that list. If travel was such a detriment, there wouldn’t be a contract to play a conference game in the JerryDome forever and ever. Road games are really challenging because there are 100,000 Alabama, LSU, or Florida fans screaming at you while you’re on the field. Not as much because the team flew in a plane or rode a bus to get there.
There’s never been a need to stain the debate with hateful rhetoric (which, to be fair, has come from both sides). Little Rock is “too dangerous,” even if the team goal each year is to get to a city like Atlanta, New Orleans, or Miami. Fayetteville is the “wine and cheese” crowd even though there are far more students there, and it’s not like there aren’t plenty of corporate or political attendees at War Memorial. Little Rock fans are “too drunk,” as if games in Fayetteville and the rest of the SEC are sober, gentlemanly affairs. I’ve also never been in line with dismissing War Memorial as a “dump.” No, it’s not as nice as Razorback Stadium and it’s clearly significantly smaller, but I’ve always been the type of fan that ultimately wants a good view of the game and feels like the crowd can make a genuine impact. Amenities behind and under the stands have never been important to me (although I can support the need for improved restrooms and iced drinks in the concession stands).
One of the major differences between college sports and their professional counterparts is that the pro teams tear down their old stadiums and build brand new ones, which often lack the personality, tradition and charm of their predecessors. Wrigley Field is often described as one of the most outdated stadiums in America, but it’s arguably more popular than the Cubs themselves. Even among the Razorback fan base, every basketball season some fans clamor for a game to be played at Barnhill for old times sake. Just as there will always be fans who fawningly remember the great War Memorial games.
It’s a Barnhill-type of rowdy atmosphere that War Memorial is often known for, but in my experience, at least in recent years, if it’s not a big game, there’s nothing particularly special about the atmosphere (this is basically true for most every team in the country) and there won’t be any more truly big games played there anyway. The 2010 game against LSU was a magical night but the games against the Mississippi schools don’t generate the same level of energy. In fact, I’d argue the crowd participation levels between Fayetteville and Little Rock have grown to become pretty similar.
But War Memorial is still much smaller, and if the Hogs can’t sell it out against any opponent, it’s pretty difficult to justify the need to continue playing there. Ultimately, it should be the goal of the Razorbacks to play in front of as many fans as possible, and even if they don’t sell out in Fayetteville (which Samford would not, and ticket sales in Fayetteville are a topic for another day), they’d still play in front of about 20,000 more people.
I’ve formerly been of the opinion that Arkansas should keep one non-conference game there, but without the promise of an SEC game as part of the season ticket package, it’s worth wondering how many fans would buy tickets just for one game against a Samford-type of opponent. And if Arkansas can’t crack 50,000 fans with Mississippi State attached to the package, why would they ever sell more without them? It appears to me the only way Arkansas could sell out a non-conference game at War Memorial is if they played the season opener there (but Fayetteville needs the season opener attraction to draw more fans to Fayetteville), or played (debating whether or not I should even bring this up) Arkansas State.
I noted a couple of weeks ago that I was a big proponent of tailgating at War Memorial, and I continue to be. My suggestion to War Memorial and the city of Little Rock in the event that all games are moved is this: when Arkansas travels to a distant road game, such as this year’s Florida or Rutgers games (where few fans will travel), put up big TV screens throughout the golf course at War Memorial, and let fans tailgate like the game was in Little Rock but let them watch the game there on the golf course. It could be like Movies in the Park, and if the fans bought into it, I think it could be a lot of fun.
It will be interesting to see what happens when/if all the games are moved. How will it affect donations from fans who love going to games in Little Rock? How many fans will travel to Fayetteville for three cupcake games each year? There are plenty of instances when Fayetteville hasn’t drawn a very large crowd for a midseason games against non-BCS level opponents. On the other hand, how many Little Rock-only ticket buyers would start buying tickets in Fayetteville? These are things Jeff Long has surely considered, and wouldn’t have already done things such as moving LSU to Fayetteville if he was too afraid it wouldn’t be a net positive.
And ultimately, for me, the strain on the fan base of fighting about it every time Arkansas plays in Little Rock just isn’t worth it. I’m not sure why the Fayetteville-only crowd is so adamant about tacking on an extra Samford type of game to their season ticket packages, but they will. Or, at least, more than 47,000 will.
So let’s go ahead and make the announcement. We’re breaking up with War Memorial Stadium. Treat the final games at War Memorial like these final episodes of Breaking Bad and count them down. Perhaps they’d sell more tickets if fans knew there were only a few War Memorial games remaining. And then, when it’s finally time to play the last Razorback game there, it can get a similar sendoff to neighboring Ray Winder Field, and fans can celebrate the history of the place instead of complaining and fighting about having to play there.