Mark Ferguson: Little Rock Dropped The Ball

 

little rock skyline

By Mark Ferguson

I have to challenge the thoughts of Rex Nelson regarding the tapering of Razorback games from Little Rock because they come from a place of fond memories and personal loss.

It is unfair to be critical of the University of Arkansas for looking at a spreadsheet and seeing that War Memorial Stadium no longer makes financial sense for their program. In the pre-TV and limited-TV era with the trip to Fayetteville taking about twice as long as it does today, it was in the UA’s financial interest to play in Little Rock.

Razorback Stadium had 18,000 seats to Little Rock’s 31,000. Razorback Stadium didn’t exceed 30,000 seats until 1957 and didn’t top 40,000 until 1969. War Memorial had already topped 53,000 seats in 1967. With the seats generally being sold, that capacity difference mattered.

The Razorbacks didn’t play in Little Rock because it had a great atmosphere, but because Little Rock increased the revenues of the UA program.

This is not an Arkansas “loss” it’s Little Rock’s loss because it is Little Rock that has dropped the ball.

The folks at War Memorial have done an admirable job improving War Memorial Stadium, squeezing the most out of dollars they have.

The problem is Little Rock is no longer playing the deck of cards they once held. War Memorial no longer offers larger crowds with larger revenue.

More importantly Little Rock isn’t playing the game the way other cities are playing the neutral-site game. Major games are showing up in places like Dallas and Atlanta because the cities or the stadiums are making offers college football programs cannot refuse. Saint Louis and Kansas City are offering Arkansas State seven figures to move the Red Wolves home game against Mizzou.

Rex Nelson suggests that Arkansas State will leap into the void created by the Hogs. I do not believe that is true.

While Arkansas State University System President Chuck Welch lives in Little Rock, there are many A-State alums, such as myself, who also live in Central Arkansas, and we happily load up for the less than two hour drive (at least when I’m driving) to go back to the campus of our youth to see and reconnect with old friends.

From a business standpoint, playing in Little Rock increases A-State’s overhead by about $100,000. A-State athletic director Terry Mohajir does not strike me as a person who will risk increasing his overheard unless there is a solid certainty of that risk being financially rewarded.

Until Little Rock changes its approach to the business and begins making financial guarantees securing FBS schools to play in War Memorial will be difficult.

While Little Rock does not have the resources of Dallas, Atlanta, Saint Louis or Kansas City, the Rock has to find a way to compete if it wants to be a neutral-site player.

Consider Mobile, Ala. The city places itself on the hook for one million dollars each year to host a bowl game. Whatever the bowl makes in title sponsorships is rebated back to the city. Mobile has been paying about a half million dollars after sponsorships to host a Sun Belt and Mid-American Conference team. The city gains exposure to more than one million television viewers, and they get a few days of full hotels and full restaurants. Having traveled there the last two years, Mobile also gains positive word-of-mouth.

The idea of a bowl in Little Rock had some support, but there was a great deal of scoffing at the idea of hosting a bowl game in Little Rock if it couldn’t bring in “big” name teams. Never mind that 10,000 to 15,000 Arkansans have trekked to Mobile the past two years spending one to three nights in hotels and buying a lot of expensive meals.

New Orleans, Mobile, and Montgomery, Ala., have all been willing to step in and do what many in Little Rock considered pointless or beneath the city.

Rex suggests that UALR might be ready to step forward and start football.

UALR has a larger activity fee for athletics than Arkansas State. Finding the funds to start football and keep it operating will be a challenge. You can be sure Little Rock’s city government will not pledge to buy thousands of tickets each year to prop up the program as the Birmingham city council has done.

Maybe the resources are available, but it is not an easy venture.

South Alabama approved football in December of 2007, played their first season of seven games in 2009, playing prep schools, junior colleges and club teams. In 2010 they played solely four year schools, a mix of NAIA, Division II, and FCS. In 2011 FCS and lower division teams. Then in 2012 they began playing an FBS schedule and became fully FBS this season. They are currently 6-17 since scheduling as an FBS school and they are struggling to sell tickets.

Most likely if UALR adds football, the school will follow the path of metropolitan-based schools using large civic owned stadiums and try to find a way to build their own facility on or near campus as has happened or is being considered with Houston, UAB, South Alabama, SMU, Tulane, and Memphis. The new program at Charlotte opted to start by building their own stadium rather than sharing the local NFL stadium.

Even if UALR starts football, they won’t recapture the magic Rex Nelson describes as shown by the experience of other similar metropolitan colleges.

FBS football in Little Rock isn’t likely to be part of the future unless the community chooses to create a war chest to subsidize football whether it is Razorback, Red Wolf, Trojan or bowl game football.

***

Mark Ferguson, lives in Sherwood and is a student of the business of the game of college football. Follow him on twitter @arkstfan.

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21 Responses to “Mark Ferguson: Little Rock Dropped The Ball”

  1. A-State Fan Rules
    November 29, 2013 at 9:59 am #

    A well-constructed argument. But playing in Little Rock wasn’t just about more seats. It was about pulling the brand out of isolation and exposing it to a larger and affluent fan base. It was a long term strategy that worked. It’s a strategy that A-Stste should strongly consider, at least on a trial basis (one game a year for two or three years).

    • Arkstfan
      November 29, 2013 at 10:19 am #

      Arkansas had a million fewer residents when the Hogs moved into War Memorial Stadium and driving was far more difficult.

      More importantly the city council took some gruff but renamed Stadium Boulevard to Red Wolf Boulevard.

      You then send AState fans to the Rivermarket rather than the wonderfully renovated Main St district of Jonesboro for post-game partying?

      Not because you are “taking a shot” at bolstering the fan base. There has to be more.

      • A-State Fan Rules
        November 29, 2013 at 10:52 am #

        Again, good argument. But how many fans went to Main Street after the Georgia State game? Building a fan base will require building loyalty outside NEA. Let”s plant our seeds for the future.

    • ASURW.com
      November 29, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

      Existing in the secluded NEA region has benefited ASU. UCA and UALR are clearly over shadowed by Arkansas. ASU has less of that problem to deal with. However the NEA region can’t fill the 33k stadium after multiple winning seasons.

      A game in LR would be a nod to the Central Arkansas community in an attempt to bring more fans into the fold. I’ve been a proponent of ASU playing games in WMS for many years. I think the iron has never been hotter to make the most of the situation. It’s not about filling WMS, it’s about filling LBS in Jonesboro.

      • Barry
        November 30, 2013 at 12:49 pm #

        Right on ASU RW !!! GaRedwolf

  2. Arkstfan
    November 29, 2013 at 10:05 am #

    CORRECTION/ADDENDUM

    I did not properly address a few points in my post turkey and pie haze.

    -AState would also need a Little Rock venue sales and marketing program, would need to overcome the season ticket holders and regular buyers who would not come to LR. The number for AState would be closer to $250,000 than $100,000.

    -UALR recently dropped a women’s sport. Adding football would mandate adding at least two women’s sports. An annual on-going expense that would be harder to fund than donations to start.

    - I neglected to mention that Mobile gave South Alabama use of their stadium at no cost for five years to help the start-up.

  3. 40 Minute Hell Razor
    November 29, 2013 at 11:23 am #

    Little Rock dropped the ball when the UofA was established. They wouldn’t tax themselves to pay for it. Fayetteville did. Then Batesville, with Arkansas College, and other towns in north Arkansas. L.R. has always had a conservative Southern outlook suspicious of book lurnin. They bring the same mentality to this issue of college football. They don’t value progress enough to invest in the kinds of institutions that bring civilization and entertainment to their city. They are backwards folks. Not all of them, of course, but enough to slow progress to a crawl.

  4. Kris
    November 29, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

    A-State Fan Rules, in a way I agree with your point, but at this time the outlook for the return on the investment is less than good. So far the business and media community have been agnostic at best, and more truthfully hostile, towards the Red Wolves. That is the market that it is smart to invest in. When, and if, they ever show something positive towards anything non-Hog, then maybe A-stAte should look into investing into Little Rock. Right now it would be smarter to plow that money into Greek governmental bonds

    • Barry
      November 30, 2013 at 11:16 am #

      Asu needs to play a game and build a fan base in central Arkansas A greater presence with fans and media would help put ‘butts in the seats in Jonesboro as we would create fans that we don’t have now. This stuff takes time and you can’t just play once every ten years and expect big crowds. This is a needed part if getting a statewide base! GaRedwolf

    • Evin Demirel
      December 3, 2013 at 10:23 am #

      +1 “it would be smarter to plow that money into Greek governmental bonds”

  5. Hairy Taint
    November 29, 2013 at 7:38 pm #

    Rex Nelson is wrong and bitter. It is obvious. Read his article. He clearly dislikes both Long and Bielema. It no longer makes financial sense to play in Little Rock. I am actually happy that they are keeping at least one game a year there. But after 2018, it is over in Little Rock. The north end zone construction at Razorback Stadium will be well underway by then.

    As far as Arkansas State filling the void, ridiculous. They can’t even sell out their own stadium when they are winning. It is laughable to think that they will fill a “void” left by the Razorbacks not playing in Little Rock.

    • arkstfan
      November 29, 2013 at 8:44 pm #

      When War Memorial was built it was ridiculous that the bunch that wasn’t filling 18500 seats could sell 30,000 in Little Rock.

    • Barry
      December 2, 2013 at 6:46 pm #

      The great Hogs don’t even sell out Little Rock anymore. They need to play someone more interesting than Samford or Jacksonville State. it really doesn’t make since for the hogs to play in the Rock anymore unless they are playing UCA or Astate.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Arkansas Fans, Get a Grip: War Memorial Stadium Tradition Not So Special | - December 3, 2013

    [...] Stadium had 18,000 seats to War Memorial’s 31,000 when it opened in the late 1940s, according to Mark Ferguson. Razorback Stadium didn’t exceed 30,000 seats until 1957 and didn’t top 40,000 until 1969. War [...]

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