Doc Harper: The Absurdities of the UA vs ASU Debate

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In the horrific event you find yourself watching political news, there are few things more aggravating than seeing politicians and pundits blabbering on with the same silly talking points and avoiding the true nuances of an issue.

And when the Arkansas legislature developed a bill for Arkansas to play Arkansas State a couple of weeks ago, besides reigniting the unholy alliance of sports and politics, it immediately brought out folks on both sides of the issue to spew the same tired half-truths they’ve been saying for years. It’s maddening. If you take a closer look at exactly what’s being said, it becomes exceedingly clear just how much of the whole ua vs asu debate is hot air.

“We don’t want to divide the state”

This is UA’s main line in response to the bill. It’s very choice wording used to give the impression that folks on the hill are the white knights looking out for the best interest of the state. They’re asking people, “Do you want our wonderfully united state to be split apart? Ripped at the seams like cheap non-Nike uniforms? It’s a hellscape we all know we cannot survive.”

What UA doesn’t want to divide is the near-monopoly they have on the state’s interest and recreational money spent on college sports – although the amount of division created by the two schools playing is highly debatable. Even if the Red Wolves defeated the Razorbacks, it’s unknown to what extent, if any, damage the Razorbacks would suffer long-term. Arkansas State beat Texas A&M back in 2008, and a few years later all the Aggies have done is joined the SEC, hired a new coach, beat Alabama, announced the expansion of their stadium, won a Heisman Trophy, may have the first pick in the NFL Draft, and became one of the hottest programs in the country. Hardly a death sentence.

It is understandable why UA wouldn’t even want to put that unknown on the table, but let’s not pretend that it’s for the good of the state that they don’t agree to a game.

“UA doesn’t have a good reason not to play ASU”

And they don’t need one.

This isn’t a court of law. Legal precedents don’t apply. The opinion in the case of School Bullies v. Dorks is all UA needs. If Jeff Long wanted to put up a billboard near the ASU campus with nothing but a picture of a Razorback giving the finger in ASU’s direction with the headline “Our Policy,” he could do that. This is why UA repeats the line about dividing the state and then drops the mic.

“ASU would never beat UA”

If the game had been scheduled last November, when Gus Malzahn had the Red Wolves rolling and the Razorbacks were mailing it in, do many people really think Arkansas State couldn’t have pulled off the victory? Or 2008 when the Red Wolves won in College Station and Arkansas barely squeaked by Western Illinois and Louisiana-Monroe? At the very least it would have been a good game.

“The game would increase interest and enthusiasm for football in Arkansas”

As if football isn’t popular enough. People would be interested in this game, but it’s hard to say it would have an impact on the game of football throughout Arkansas.  And if Arkansas did blow out Arkansas State routinely, it could devolve into an LSU vs Tulane type of rivalry, in which there really isn’t much interest at all.

“Let’s keep the money in state”

The most ridiculous part of the bill to play this game is the complete avoidance of the financial aspects of the game. My theory is the only reason they added the part about donating the ticket revenue to charity is because they knew it would be difficult to come up with a real solution that would work for both parties. It’s a total cop-out.

I’m all for charity, but telling the schools, whose athletic departments rely heavily on the seven or eight home football games each year, that they’d have to give away revenues from one of those games is laughable. The schools could still write a substantial check to charity without completely committing all of their ticket revenue from the game.

So how to split the ticket revenue if the schools kept it? This is where the logistics of the game get complicated. The bill only calls for one game, but we all know that if the game happened once, there would be demand for it to happen again. Even if it takes place in War Memorial, the game only makes financial sense for UA if they keep all the ticket revenue, just as they currently do for their games in Little Rock. Let’s say the schools split the ticket money 50/50. At 26,000 tickets at UA’s current non-conference game in Little Rock ticket price of $55, that would come out to $1.43 million that they’d give away to ASU. That’s significantly more than what UA would save by not paying the usual non-conference game fee, which is rarely more than $1 million.

And even if the ticket money went to charity, that would mean the ASU game financially would be a road game for UA since they wouldn’t make money from it. Considering the possibility of a 9-game SEC schedule when the SEC Network kicks off (look ahead to Mike Slive’s announcement in April), Arkansas may then have six road games on its schedule, which Jeff Long has said he tries to avoid for obvious reasons (This also ignores the possibility of schools increasing their strength of schedule to accommodate the upcoming playoff selection criteria, but that’s another topic for another day).

Even from ASU’s perspective, it’d be interesting to see how they handled the scheduling of the game. For the last several years, they’ve scheduled at least two non-conference road games for which they’ve pocketed at least $1.5 million, topping out at $1.95 million from Oregon and Nebraska in 2012. The legislation didn’t call for UA to pay ASU anything to play the game, so would ASU be willing to forego a $1 million payday to play it?  If all we’re doing is replacing the money ASU would get for a non-conference game and letting UA keep the money they’d pay for a non-conference game, that’s a wash in terms of keeping the money in state.

In fact, you can even argue it could cost the state money. If ASU gave up a $1 million game to play Arkansas, and the Razorbacks didn’t schedule, say, an $850,000 game (the Tulsa payout from 2012), that would be a net loss of $150,000 coming into the state instead of a net gain of $150,000. (The rate both schools pay/receive for non-conference games varies, but the math could easily work this way.)

ASU’s other option would be to replace one of their other non-conference games with Arkansas. The downside for this would be replacing a game scheduled for a decent chance of winning (Alcorn State, Memphis, UCA, Navy, Mississippi Valley State in recent years) with a game they’d lose more often than not (hurting opportunities for winning seasons and bowl bids), and it would take a game away from Jonesboro each year. Know what Jonesboro hotels and restaurants call this?  The shaft.

Because at this point we reach a very basic economic principle: two games in the state generate more revenue than one.

When Arkansas and Arkansas State play separately, there are more tickets sold, more fans traveling, more hotels getting booked, more cars filling their gas tanks, more restaurant tables filled, more glasses poured, and so on. It doesn’t make the state any more money to give a Jonesboro game away in order to play Arkansas. It would in fact cost money.

So if it doesn’t make sense financially to play Arkansas, why does ASU really want to do it? Because of people like me.

Not me at this point in my life, but me in high school.

I was born and raised in Little Rock. Most all of my family either lives in Central or Northwest Arkansas. I had no connection to Northeast Arkansas nor Arkansas State at all other than a few high school friends who attended the school. When I was thinking about various colleges as high school came to an end, I never thought of ASU as being on the same level as UA, not just athletically, but as a whole.

As kids, athletics is often the first introduction we have to colleges. When I was growing up, no matter what kind of season the Razorbacks were having in any sport, UA was the only school that mattered to anybody I knew. Since the Razorbacks played so many of the top schools in the country, and never played ASU or any other in-state school, it made UA feel like it was on a completely different level.

I don’t know how much seeing UA and ASU on the same field or court would change that, but maybe it would a little bit. We know some people believe that sort of appearance may be worth losing money for. In 2011, UCA turned down $300,000 from Houston to take $150,000 to play at Arkansas State. Of course, the Bears were blown out, so whether they gained anything from the one-time game to make up for losing out on $150,000 is certainly up for debate.

In the end, as a guy writing about sports, I’m in favor of the best story, and normally this game would be a better story than UA playing other Sun Belt teams. However, I think it makes sense for Razorback fans and UA to avoid the game just as much as it makes sense for ASU to want it. The best way for it to happen is for UA to have a real reason to play it, and that’s what’s missing right now.

Doc Harper is the managing editor of Arkansas Expats and is a regular contributor to College Football News and Sporting Life Arkansas. You can email him here and follow him on Twitter.

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  • stAte

    You can always tell where the writer went to school when you read these articles. Nobody in my family even considered UA for college and we all had the opportunity to attend any school in Arkansas. My experience growing up on the eastern side of the state was nothing like the writer’s experience in central Arkansas.

    As for the financial side, it’s a wash. ASU is selling enough tickets and drawing enough fans now that it no longer has to schedule two guarantee games. This season, Auburn is the only guaranteee game on the schedule. Missouri was not originally on the schedule but was added as a home and home due to realignment. If ASU plays UA instaed of Auburn, it does not give up any Jonesboro games and can easily make up any difference in the contract by selling its allotment at a premium.

    These days, it makes more sense for UA fans to want to play than it does ASU fans. ASU fans finally have a leg to stand on when debating their UA buddies about a hypothetical contest (thank you ULM and back to back 10 win seasons). The last thing ASU needs to do is give UA a chance to put any notions of ASU as the best football team in the State to rest by playing a game. The same thing occurred when ASU scheduled UCA when ASU was coming off a 4-8 season and UCA was winning consistently.

    I see more ASU license plates and shirts in central Arkansas than ever these days by a large margin. ASU needs to continue winning and building its brand without giving UA a chance to challenge tha momentum as much as UA needs to maintain their monopoly.

    • Doc Harper

      I didn’t attend either school.

      • stAte

        You have your own Razorback fan site. You bleed Razorback Red and I bleed Scarlet and Black.

      • Doc Harper

        I am a Razorback fan, but I’ve never subscribed to the theory that you can only be a fan of one or the other. I mean, half of the article is about pointing out holes in UA arguments.

      • stAte

        I was with you for the first half or more of the article. I think it is a wash financially and it certainly isn’t going to harm either school to play. The state is also football crazy already so it is a wash there as well. The only “reason” not to play is that UA doesn’t want to risk it and that is fine by me. I think there are good reasons for ASU to not want to play.

        Ther are minor points I disagree with on the game issue itself and I pointed those out. You kind of lost me in the 3rd and 4th paragraphs from the bottom when you seem to take a shot at my alma mater academically. I grew up thinking that Harvard or Hendrix for that matter were on a different level than UA and athletics clearly aren’t part of that equation. Beating UA does little more for ASU off the field than beating Texas A&M or posting back to back 10 win seasons and bowl appearances.

        ASU doesn’t “need” to play UA but they don’t “need” to play UAPB or UCA either.

    • CBahn

      “You can always tell where the writer went to school when you read these articles.”

      It’s that easy, huh?

      • stAte

        Yes. The bias always comes through and it isn’t confined to one side of the debate or the other. Most of the media come down on the UA side for obvious reasons. I’ve never encountered one person from outside this state who isn’t affiliated with either school who comes down against playing intra-state games though.

      • Fanof49

        It’s always that easy.

      • Hawgfan100

        “I’ve never encountered one person from outside this state who isn’t affiliated with either school who comes down against playing intra-state games though.”

        You have now.

      • stAte

        Uhhh… no. Your name is “Hawgfan100”. Maybe you didn’t understand the “affiliated part”.

      • Hawgfan100

        Uhhh…yeah, if you extend your definition of ‘affiliated’ to cover fandom, then I am truly affiliated.

    • StAte Family

      I totally agree with you…GO RED WOLVES!!!

      • RoadHog

        Ha – you’re just an Indian in Wolves clothing…GO Hogs GO!!!!

  • AngryCzeck

    Terrific article, Doc. Thoughtful and well-said. But the “real” reason for uOFa to play the game is simple: Sportsmanship. (Page 9, Bullet Point #2 “University of Arkansas Department of Intercollegiate Athletics” Guide.)

  • DK

    Is this the same Doc Harper that constantly bitches and moans about officiating any time the Hogs lose?

    • Doc Harper

      Nah, that must be somebody else.

  • CK

    I prefer to not watch my Red Wolves get pounded on season after season from a rivalry game like this. Last year? Yeah, we were good. But I’m not blind to the athletic level of the SEC. Better coaching. Better quality of players. Yes, Arkansas was terrible last year, and we [stAte] could’ve easily given them a run for their money — I mean, look at their Jackson State or ULM performance to prove that. But that doesn’t make it worth it. If we were getting paid — sure. But to give any UofA fan the satisfaction of a “I told you so” is enough to warrant this game never happening.

    Other reasons:

    1. We are a coaching revolving door. And will continue to be. You’re welcome SEC. (Freeze – Ole Miss, Malzhan – Auburn)
    2. Are players don’t match up. Which could lead to injuries and embarrassment, and hurt our recruiting.
    3. The majority of Arkansas doesn’t want it. And that would’ve been proven in the voting for that bill if UofA fans cared enough to vote.
    4. I don’t ever want to see the smug faces of a UofA fan after we lose to them. Ugh, the thought turns my stomach.

    We may win one out of twenty. And that one we win would be epic. But that’s a lot of losing to deal with for it to not really mean anything.

    Great article. Good points.

    • AngryCzeck

      Good arguments, CK, but I disagree with “3.” The “vote” proves there’s a great deal of support for such a game. Many of those who voted “No” simply didn’t want the Arkansas Legislature involved.

      • Not An ASU fan

        Apparently, you’re one of the few that believe this was an ASU fan writing this.

    • stAte

      Not fooling anyone.

      • FanofstAte

        I agree…..but it will fool the pig fans.

    • stAtefanatic

      Point #2 in your fictional tale is not true. Over the last three years, ASU players have been as good if not better at most positions and could hold their own with any UA player. We have proven this by playing teams much better than UAF and beaten teams that UAF has lost to. Get a life and get real!

      • Drew

        Speaking of fictional tales…

        ASU has had some great players come through recently (Demario Davis, for example)’ but “better at most positions?” Come on, man.

        By the way, your use of the plural “teams” is incorrect.

      • stAte

        His use of “teams” was correct.

  • Cleon

    UA can make their own schedule. They can schedule The Citadel, ULM, Jax State, Missouri State, or Southeast Tennessee School of Cuisine for all I care.

    If the Legislature really wants to do something it can develop a plan for the State of Arkansas to have multiple national research universities….and then properly fund those universities. This is what we need to beat North Carolina in….not in football.

    The idea that we should have ONE major university and a bunch of vo-techs for training peasants is literally killing this state.