Evin Demirel: Arkansas Football Fans’ Passion on the Line? Really?

Arkansas football fans are dedicated and hugely passionate. They don’t need to meet a recent challenge by UALR’s athletic director to prove it.

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The “Rice Bowl” draws nigh.

Any week  now, expect the powers-that-be to huddle near War Memorial Stadium and declare to the world here stands a college football bowl site that will be a most fine feather in Little Rock’s cap.

That some mid-December day in the not too distant future will come a time of festivity holding high everything  good and honorable in the world of student-athleticism. Also, it will be a time of economic stimulus worth upwards to $25 million to central Arkansas and also a time of revenue generation for the athletic departments of Arkansas State University and University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

These are the two in-state programs which stand to most benefit from the creation of a new bowl game. They belong to the Sun Belt Conference, whose leaders are talking with counterparts at the Mid-American Conference, local business leaders and television network executives about bringing a bowl to Little Rock, likely in 2014.

The Sun Belt has recently produced more bowl-eligible teams than it has bowl tie-ins for them to play in. On the surface, a new bowl seems like a winning proposition – for local restaurants and hotels who would handle the influx of tourists, for War Memorial Stadium which needs a signature event more than ever now and for Sun Belt members.

An obvious reason: money. Tickets, merchandise and advertising are sold. Television rights fees are especially lucrative. Typically, the revenue from each of a conference’s bowl games goes into a pot and is divvied among all conference members.

So, it’s not surprising to see UALR’s athletic director Chris Peterson emerge at the most outspoken promoter for a new “Rice Bowl” likely to be sponsored by Stuttgart-based Riceland Foods, Inc. In an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette column on Wednesday, Wally Hall wrote it’s believed Peterson would be open to taking a position to run the bowl.  Individual motives aside, it’s clear that even though UALR doesn’t have a football program, Peterson’s department would benefit from just being part of the Sun Belt.

Granted, how much money would be made is very much up to question.

Sometimes, smaller schools playing in lower profile bowls – which this bowl would be – don’t come close to selling their allotment of tickets. This leads to the school spending more to attend the bowl than it earns for its conference. Middle Tennessee State University’s appearance in the 2009 New Orleans Bowl as a Sun Belt representative cost the conference at least $50,000, for instance.

Administrators understand that such a situation is simply the cost of valuable promotion. “I do it for the exposure for our schools and the enhancement of recruitment, and all the things that go with additional TV and bowl opportunities,” former Sun Belt Commissioner Wright Waters told Bloomberg in 2010.

Of course, if television cameras pan over 15,000 people filling up a 55,000-person stadium, that doesn’t look too good to recruits, sponsors or your everyday sports fan tuning in on ESPN. It’s critical to convince the local populace they should attend the game.

This is one reason Chris Peterson made the media rounds last week to evangelize the masses in support of the Rice Bowl. He stressed the game’s significance reaches far beyond Sun Belt sports fans. It’s about “promoting the state of Arkansas” and “promoting everything that’s good about college athletics,” he told Justin Acri of 103.7 The Buzz FM.

This is seriously lofty talk, but, hey, the man’s excited. I get that. What I don’t get is how in that same interview Peterson suggested if tens of thousands of Arkansans attended the Rice Bowl it would show – once and for all – that Arkansas really, truly loves itself some football. Even if the Arkansans were paying to watch out-of-state teams play.

“I can’t tell you how many times I hear Arkansas has the greatest football fans. Well, this is the time to show the country that that’s the case,” Peterson said. “Show the country we are what we say we are.”

Let’s pause. Think about this.

How, exactly, does showing up to War Memorial to watch a game between, say, Troy University and Northern Illinois University measure the passion Arkansans have on the whole for the game of football?

Plenty passion is already shown by the Arkansas football fan who spends hundreds of dollars to take the family to Fayetteville or Jonesboro for a weekend of college football. Or, perhaps, the Arkansas football fan who spends thousands of dollars on a home entertainment center to cram in more SEC, Big Ten and NFL football watching than should be humanly possible. What of the Arkansas football fan who already made the trip to War Memorial in December – to support the state’s best young football players during the high school championships?

There is plenty of football already out there that’s already being plenty consumed by Arkansans. Arkansans have already proven themselves diehard football fans. No need to whip out their wallets to prove it any more. It’s sophistic to suggest otherwise.

Peterson and other Sun Belt leaders want an extra Sun Bowl-affiliated bowl game because they believe such an event would help their programs and their students. That’s fair. And that’s a selling point. They should stick with it.

Don’t tie Arkansans’ love of football to this argument. There really is no tie. The state supports its football more than most places but business leaders in a few other states throw much more money at the sport. Games elsewhere attract more people. Let’s be realistic: Arkansas isn’t the most passionate football state in the South.

If it were, then maybe UALR’s athletic director would have his own football program to trumpet.

Demirel blogs about 7-4, 300-pound land leviathans who once called Jonesboro home and Tweets here

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