If you’re reading this and many other of the great features here at Sporting Life Arkansas, it’s probably a safe assumption that you’re the type of sports fan who, like us, enjoys getting all sorts of sports news and commentary on the Internet. If you fit that description, and you don’t have a Twitter account, you’re just doing it wrong. That’s like beach vacations in the rain or non-alcoholic beer – it’s not the full experience.
You’re also missing out on a really cool, interactive new feature here at Sporting Life Arkansas. Last week, we held our first of what we hope will be weekly Twitter chats. It’s a time when many of the site’s contributors gather online and have an open conversation with each other and fans under the hashtag #slachat. It’s a lot of fun and we hope all of you will join us in the future (Tuesday nights, 8:00-9 p.m.).
As much as I love Twitter, it can sometimes be difficult to make full, nuanced statements in the range of 140 characters. The first question from last week’s chat was “Is interest in basketball diminishing in Arkansas? Are we becoming an all-football state?” Here was my initial response:
— Doc Harper (@doc_harper) January 16, 2013
I was referring to the level of enthusiasm we saw for the Razorback basketball program after defeating Oklahoma and Texas. It was a fleeting moment, as the Pelphrey era began its epic, excruciating, tortuous, rather-spend-2-hours-with-the-cable-company-than-watch-games collapse immediately following that Texas upset. But the moment did happen, and it stands as evidence that Razorback fans still support the basketball program and want it to be good.
But the full answer to the original question is much more complicated and is difficult to fully express on Twitter.
Clearly, there is still interest in basketball. Significant interest. Website traffic numbers indicate there’s more statewide interest in Razorback basketball than the highly successful Razorback baseball program. But is that Arkansas basketball interest as strong as it was in the ’90s? No.
It’s hard to blame the fans for that. The basketball program’s descent to mediocrity (and on occasion, mediocrity has been merely a fantasy) is very well documented. During that time, the football program took back its place in not only the fancy car on the train, but almost took over the whole dang train. Razorback Stadium was renovated. The football team started having winning seasons and going to bowl games and competing for the division title, all rarities during the first years in the SEC. A new football operations center is being built behind the stadium right now.
The popularization of message boards and other online social media over the last decade has allowed fans to focus on football recruiting well into what was once purely basketball season. Weekends in January are now as well known for football recruiting weekends as for basketball games. Even in Razorback basketball’s biggest moment from 2012, the January victory over Michigan in a sold-out and 90′s-loud Bud Walton Arena, a big part of the excitement was the football team’s recognition at halftime and top football recruit Dorial Green-Beckham’s visit to campus.
This hardly means I’m suggesting fans can only enjoy one of the two sports. I firmly believe Arkansas can be successful at both and fans can love both at the same time. However, a dollar can only go to one or the other, and this day and age, it takes lots of dollars to run a top football program. Much more than it used to.
Once Bud Walton Arena was built and the Razorbacks won the national championship, it’s almost like some in the administration wiped their hands moved on to something else as if they were finished with it. Like Daniel-Day Lewis at the end of “There Will Be Blood.” While the other SEC schools, most all of whom are purely football devotees, were busy building pristine practice facilities*, Arkansas’ big basketball updates included installing ribbon boards, new scoreboards, moving the press tables behind one of the goals, and replacing the legendary slobbering hog with a “brand accurate” Razorback. What were once state-of-the-art basketball facilities became dated. Give credit to Jeff Long for pushing for a practice facility in Fayetteville, which was finally approved by the Board of Trustees last fall.
*Even Ole Miss, home of the putrid Tad Pad, where electricity was embarrassingly cut off for nearly half and hour during the Rebels’ game against Arkansas on Saturday, has an excellent facility. It’s one of many SEC schools whose practice facility is far superior to the actual game arena.
Not that fans should base their level of interest in a program on the quality of said program’s facilities, but it does provide a glimpse into where the administration’s focus is, and that sets the tone for everything else. If budgets are about choices, it’s fair to say the athletic administration, and the fans along with them, chose to focus on football for the bulk of the last 15 years. And it’s understandable why they’d do that. Take a look at the athletic department’s annual financial report, and you’ll see how much money football is worth even in down years. It’s the reason football dictates all the conference realignment and television contracts. Basketball just can’t measure up.
We are in an era in which a story reporting the hire of a new assistant coach for the football team generates more web traffic than a basketball game story. Arkansas is a football state. Basketball has a share of the spotlight that at times has been very large and is currently small, but that doesn’t mean people have given up on basketball. During the handful of instances over the last decade when the basketball team has given Arkansas fans a reason to be passionate, fans have jumped on board and welcomed the ride, the rides just haven’t lasted long. Fans mostly love Mike Anderson and very much want to see him succeed, and will watch his tenure at Arkansas with great interest.