Analysis: Is It 'If' Or 'When' Razorbacks Leave Little Rock?
The University of Arkansas' decision to further reduce the number of football games it plays at Little Rock should come as no surprise; the road toward last week's announcement started being paved before Interstate 540 was paved in the 1990s. The question now is whether, or when, central Arkansas will lose the games altogether.
In a sense, the state of Arkansas has shrunk since the University of Arkansas played its first game at Little Rock in 1901, a road game against the city's high school. Since 1932, the Razorbacks have traveled down the hill from Fayetteville to play at least one game per season in the capital, but when television and transportation are considered it's easy to question how much longer the games will stick around.
From 1948 through 2002, the Razorbacks played at least twice annually at War Memorial Stadium, but usually three or four times per year. Two games has been the norm for a decade, but from 2014 to 2018 there will be one Razorback game at Little Rock per season. And after that, who knows.
What started as a sports story spilled onto the news pages in 1999 and 2000, when the university floated the idea of playing more home games in Fayetteville and limiting the number of games in Little Rock. Business leaders threatened to pull financial support for the school and then-Gov. Mike Huckabee wrote to school trustees to bend their ear on what he thought was best for the state.
Arkansas football is an economic engine that generates money for all types of businesses that don't have a direct link to athletics, so there will be an impact when the school withdraws from a metropolitan area that has benefited from 65 years of games.
When Coach John Barnhill first started bringing his teams to Little Rock multiple times per season in 1948, Arkansas and the football world were much different places:
- War Memorial Stadium opened that year with 31,000 seats, nearly double the capacity of Arkansas' on-campus stadium. (Today, Razorback Stadium has 72,000 seats while War Memorial has 55,000.)
- Television was in its infancy, meaning that, for nearly all football fans, if they wanted to see their team, they had to go to the stadium. Also, if the school wanted its team to be seen, it had to go where the people were. The sport was far from the mega-business it is today.
- In Arkansas' case, traveling to the stadium wasn't easy. The better roads in the state were two-laned, but many off the main routes weren't much better than gravel coated in oil to keep the dust down. Maps from the time reveal what looks like a wheel with spokes, with nearly all roads leading to Little Rock. The spokes didn't lead to Fayetteville.
Even 30 years later, things hadn't changed that much. Little Rock's stadium was still bigger than Fayetteville's but both cities were still hosting key games (No. 1 Texas over No. 2 Arkansas 15-14 in 1969 in Fayetteville; unranked Arkansas beating No. 5 Southern Cal 22-7 in 1974 in Little Rock); the NCAA held TV rights so the fans still, most-often, had to go to the stadium to watch the game; and the road to Fayetteville was still two lanes, and marked with signs that kept a tally of recent fatalities.
But now, 65 years after Little Rock and Fayetteville started sharing games in earnest, nearly everything has changed. Regardless of how bad a team can be, there's a good chance their games will be on television after NCAA restrictions on TV appearances ended following a 1980s court challenge.
The expansion of cable television led to what seems like every team playing on TV somewhere every weekend. For example, Arkansas' 10-1 Southwest Conference championship team in 1968 appeared on TV just twice, including a Sugar Bowl appearance; Bobby Petrino's 2008 team, which finished 5-7, was on TV 10 times. It could be argued that perhaps it was too cruel to televise nearly all of this year's 3-9 Razorback season.
The increased exposure on television means it's no longer necessary to take the show on the road so the entire fan base could see it. When Barnhill was coaching, it was easier to pack up an entourage of 40 or 50 for a trip to Little Rock than it was for 16,000 fans to travel to Fayetteville on bad roads. That held true until 1999, when Interstate 540 opened and Fayetteville became a place where you could get to from here.
We've reached a point that, for mere exposure, the Razorbacks no longer need games in Little Rock. The city must rely on the university's goodwill beyond 2018 - and the lobbying has already started. "The smartest thing it can do is to have a game at Little Rock," said Brenda Scisson of Little Rock, a 17-year member of the War Memorial Stadium Commission. "They are the flagship university. They represent the whole state."