Matt Jones has a Bone to Pick about Proposed Bud Walton Arena Renovations

Matt Jones, Hunter Yurachek, Arkansas basketball, Bud Walton Arena
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

Motivational speaker Dennis Waitley once said “You must welcome change as the rule, but not as your ruler.” That’s important to keep in mind when looking at the proposal that Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek released in March for renovations to Bud Walton Arena.

In it, we see the UA letting a recent trend in college sports hold sway. Recently, on ESPN Arkansas’ midday radio show, Halftime, Matt Jones lambasted parts of that proposal over fears that these changes will diminish one of the nation’s most imposing homecourt advantages. 

“You’re going to lose some of that atmosphere when you add the corporate seats in there.” Jones told co-host Phil Elson, the Razorbacks’ play-by-play announcer for baseball. “That’s why I don’t like it. We are going to lose some of that home court advantage for a little bit of money.”

Here, the former Arkansas football quarterback refers to two of the three options the university proposed. The first option focuses on addressing deferred maintenance on items from seat cushions to hot water heaters. 

The second not only includes that, but also adds suites, boxes and club level seating in addition to an expanded student section – all while reducing the overall capacity by 1,500 to 2,000 seats.

The third includes both of those, plus additions to the “back of house,” as the university puts it. This includes putting in a new floor (the current one is for basketball only) and tackling parking issues around the arena, as well as building a new locker room and storage areas for gymnastics. 

You can see the whole proposal here.

Matt Jones’ Complaint

For Matt Jones, the sticking point comes with the kind of fans who would fill the new suites and boxes. He thinks they won’t be as involved in the game and fears the atmosphere will suffer as a result.

“To me, it’s like they’re the give-away, corporate tickets,” Jones said. “I get the purpose of it, but the people who buy those season tickets and come in and cheer; the atmosphere will go down a little bit.”

Jones is likely referencing the seats and suites that would be bought by corporations and are then handed out to employees as a reward or used by executives to entertain visiting executives or sales people. Often, luxury seating in suites and loge boxes are bought by corporations and not individuals. This type of seating was added to Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in 2018 and Baum-Walker Stadium in 2021. 

Elson, a Pittsburgh native, compared the situation to the University of Pittsburgh’s basketball arena.

“I don’t think it will necessarily ruin the home-court advantage unless you’re taking away some of the seats that are right on the floor,” Elson said. “Pitt did this before. They put four suites behind the benches and, man, it sounds like it would be a great idea, but those (are a) completely different type of fan that sits there. It’s a fan that’s there for conversation with whoever’s there with them.” 

Jones responded, “Exactly. The game is elevator music to them. You’re going there to hang out and talk about stuff; where you’re going to eat later, how’d the golf round go, ‘Oh, good dunk,’ and then you just keep going with your conversation.”

Arkansas’ renovation proposal includes a similar type of suite. The changes would also include upper concourse suites and a baseline to baseline student section on the lower level. Elson added he felt that Baum-Walker Stadium had already succumbed to this type of issue last year. 

“When they refigured the seating arrangements for last season for baseball at Baum and there were more, I guess you would use the term “corporate seats” around the dugout and around home plate, I think there were more no-shows this year,” Elson said. “In fact, there were about 51 percent. They’ve got to get that changed.”

The long-time announcer then compared Arkansas baseball to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He felt that when the Penguins started winning championships, the ticket prices rose and the atmosphere deteriorated.

Why Arkansas is Making this Move

In the proposal, the university highlights paying down the $153 million in athletic debt it owes as of the end of the 2023 fiscal year. This proposal will add at least another $50 million in debt through a bond issue.

The hope is that the more expensive options can be paid for with gift commitments, third-party partnerships and the possibility of new naming rights. The university listed renaming Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium as a potential income. Its naming rights expire in 2024. It is unclear how much the university thinks these improvements will help them pay off their debt, but leaders believe all athletic debts will be discharged within the next 14 years. The goal of the proposal seems to be to maximize Bud Walton Arena’s earnings potential and this should help bolster their efforts to get back into the black.

As millennials age into their 30s and 40s, they are making more and more money and universities want a piece of that. The university is focused on figuring out ways to make more money off in-person events that would stay attractive even if the team is losing.

Ultimately, the university is trying to still make money even when the arena is only half full. They see these areas as a reason for people to still come to the game even if Arkansas basketball is beating up on San Jose State or UNC Asheville. They are employing the same strategy in the football stadium with the addition of loge boxes and the new rooftop bar that opens this fall.

Things the University Got Right

There are two moves in the renovation plans that the University got right: the plan to expand Bud Walton’s student section and the plan to expand the facilities to ensure multiple events can come in.

The plan for an expanded student section includes widening the student section on the bottom level. Currently, the Razorback student section is just in one corner, but the proposed renovations would move the lower level student section to go from baseline to baseline on one side. This type of seating is similar to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium or Auburn’s Neville Arena.

It is unclear how many new student seats this would entail and how many regular-season ticket holders it might displace, but it’s a great move to create an even more hostile environment. 

Bud Walton is primarily used for basketball games and the Walmart shareholders meeting. It did host two gymnastics meets last year, though, and – with an expanded facility – could hold more meets and concerts. Doing this is an excellent way for the university to make additional revenue without jeopardizing the atmosphere that makes Bud Walton so special.

Things the University Got Wrong

I get the university’s side of things in making this move. They are trying to maximize the arena’s profitability. The problem is doing that in the way they’ve proposed sacrifices lower income fans and will hurt the arena’s atmosphere. 

First, adding this type of seating to the arena is likely to eliminate 1,500-2,000 general admission seats. This makes a lot of sense for the university considering there are many games for which those seats aren’t filled. However, the flip side is that sometimes fans fill those seats, and those games are typically the most important of your season. Removing such seats means less rowdiness when the Arkansas basketball team needs it most. 

At least one trustee on the board was concerned about the proposed removal of seats. Tommy Boyer, a graduate of the university and an All-American basketball player for the Razorbacks, said he was “worried” about removing seats, considering the booming population of Northwest Arkansas.  

The Razorbacks will not only have less seating, but are replacing the crowd they had in those seats with a far more tempered, perhaps even non-existent crowd considering the corporate seats may or may not be filled by actual Razorback fans for big games.

Matt Jones brought up the example of this year’s U.S. Open and how it suffered from a “corporatized” feel. The major golf tournament was lamented for it’s poor crowds and lack luster enthusiasm. The president of the United States Golf Association said that there was enough room for 40,000 fans on the course, but they cut the number to 22,000 to ensure a “quality” experience. Out of the 22,000 they allowed in, only 9,000 were general admission because the rest were given to corporate sponsors, club members and hospitality areas. 

This type of sentiment was scarily echoed by Yuracheck when he claimed that the atmosphere will actually improve by eliminating this seating. Alabama and Auburn are shining examples of arenas that downsized to create a better environment; Auburn’s is completed, while Alabama’s is still being built. Auburn eliminated about 2,500 seats and Alabama is eliminating about 5,000 from its current capacity. Both will end up housing about 10,000.

This makes sense for both of those campuses, where football is the undisputed king and they regularly had issues packing those gyms, but the same does not apply to Arkansas. Basketball is an important sport to Arkansans and the Razorbacks have a rich history in the sport. Emulating Auburn or Alabama in the way they support basketball is the wrong direction for the university.

Best of Arkansas Sports’ Verdict 

The university is trying to make Bud Walton more profitable and trying to adapt in a changing market. Both of these are understandable goals, but the sacrifices are too high to do it the way they have proposed. We believe these changes will not lead to a better atmosphere, despite what Arkansas brass says. Expanding the student section is a good thing, but losing fans overall and replacing them with a less interested crowd doesn’t equate to a better atmosphere.  

Thankfully, these plans are all still tentative and can be changed. Hunter Yurachek, please listen to Matt Jones, Phil Elson and BoAS when we say that all things considered, this proposal will hurt Bud Walton Arena, not help it.


SEC Basketball Arenas Ranked by Capacity

1Rupp ArenaKentucky23,5001976
2Thompson–Boling ArenaTennessee21,6781987
3Bud Walton ArenaArkansas19,3681993
4Colonial Life ArenaSouth Carolina18,0002002
5Coleman Coliseum*Alabama15,3831968
6Mizzou ArenaMissouri15,0612004
7Memorial GymnasiumVanderbilt14,3161952
8Pete Maravich Assembly CenterLSU13,2151972
9Reed ArenaTexas A&M12,9891998
10O’Connell CenterFlorida12,0001980
11Humphrey ColiseumMississippi State10,5751975
12Stegeman ColiseumGeorgia10,5231964
13The Pavilion at Ole MissMississippi9,5002016
14Neville ArenaAuburn9,1212010

*To be replaced with a new 10,000 seat facility

See the entire Bud Walton segment with Jones and Elson starting at 2:38:29 here:

YouTube video


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