Money or Success? Arkansas Can’t Have Both and Likely Must Soon Pick.

Sam Pittman, Hunter Yurachek, Arkansas football
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

America is a funny place. Americans are funny people. Not funny ha-ha. Funny strange. No place on planet Earth seems quite as fascinated with money. One of the most common search terms after typing in a person’s name in the United States? “Net worth.” Money is considered, by many, to be the most important factor when defining personal success.  Not love, family, creativity, art. Not education. Money and the things related to it.

And, oh, how there are so many such things around these parts.  If dollar bills aren’t in and of themselves the identifying mark of success in college athletics, cold, hard cash helps buy success, anyway, in the form of championships. For example, ESPN’s media rights deal with the SEC is worth $3 billion. 

And that’s why Arkansas, which gets a hefty slice of that pie, will never leave the Southeastern Conference. Well, not of its own volition, anyway. 

Money Talks And Bullsh…Well, You Know

In the 2022-23 season, the University of Arkansas made $167 million, a total that ranked Razorbacks with the 20th-highest revenue in collegiate sports. It’s also a total that allowed the athletic department to more or less break even. A small profit was gained, even, as operating expenses were $166.5 million. Alabama, for example, lost $13 million by playing college sports that year and was more than $20 million in the red in 2018-19 (a big chunk of that loss had to do with the university spending more than $18 million on facilities upgrades in the latter, whereas Arkansas spent just under $3 million). The Crimson Tide also made the national championship game in football that season.

Arkansas has, on the other hand, fewer SEC Championship game appearances since joining the conference in 1992 than the Tide have national-title game appearances since just 2017. The number of conferences is already shrinking, as schools like USC, UCLA, Oregon, Oklahoma and Texas have jumped to the Big Ten and SEC already, further separating those two leagues from the pack. Soon a question will come and it will come much sooner than anyone thinks: When FBS football is further split into the Big Dogs and the Little Fishes, where does Arkansas stand?

The answer depends on those two itsy, bitsy linked items: money and success. The former is not a guarantor of the latter. Arkansas may be invited to the cool kids’ club because the school has shown it can pull in bank beyond just men’s basketball and football, meeting the money qualifier. The Razorbacks are so terrible at football (the only sport that is really going to matter when the Great Migration occurs), Arkansas can still get in as the ugly friend

What better way to create a cupcake. Take a school that has limited national appeal, a largely rural, undereducated and relatively financially poor fanbase (compared to other power-conference schools and corresponding states) that lives and breathes its favorite team, its only major team, and will spend what little they have on tickets. 

What If Arkansas Gets Invited To Tier 1?

If what we now know as FBS splits into those aforementioned Big and Little Leagues, let’s also consider a future in which Arkansas doesn’t get an invitation to the future super league. Be honest, Arkansas football stinks and has stunk for a long time. No, the Hogs aren’t Colorado or Indiana or Purdue in terms of ineptitude over the last decade, but the number of two-win seasons and bowl games since 2018 is equal.

Just about everything on the Arkansas football resume suggests the Razorbacks are, on the field, one of the worst in the SEC and perhaps not even above the 50th percentile among Power 5 schools. Arkansas has finished at or below that such mark in ESPN’s FPI in seven of the last eight seasons and 11 of the 19 total seasons since the metric debuted in 2005. The way recruiting is going right now for the football team, what exactly provides hope?

Meanwhile, Arkansas excels in just about every other sport. Men’s college basketball appears to be on the cusp of national relevance even as Mike Anderson returned the team to Big Dance dreams and Eric Musselman brought consistency. Dave Van Horn has made the Diamond Hogs the best program to not have won a national championship since the millennium turned. Women’s hoops is…well, it could use some work. Soccer and volleyball are golden. Softball, too. And, who can forget track-and-field/cross country, sports in which Arkansas can legitimately claim to be the best in the nation and has been for decades.

What If Arkansas Gets Invited To Tier 2?

Suddenly, when Arkansas drops into the second tier of a hypothetical future super-league, most of those athletic teams get to be the bully now. They were good against the big-money brokers. They should be even better on a more level – ahem – playing field. 

Here’s the rub. Football is where the money is made. If Arkansas has to take a smaller cut of the pie in the sure-to-be-cheaper second conference (or tier or whatever it’s going to be called), then paying for the existence of some secondary sports – things like track-and-field, swimming/diving, golf, tennis – becomes tight, nevermind paying out enough to be competitive. Reception Ja’Quinden Jackson. Catch-22.

By no means is Arkansas the only school staring at such an issue. Arizona came immediately to mind. And sure, Arizona has a legitimately massive metro area, but much of the state is rural or, at best, exurban. The Wildcats have spent most of the century pretty bad at football, great at men’s college basketball, baseball and softball. Kansas is worth consideration, too: absolutely brilliant men’s basketball, poor football, mediocre elsewhere. Indiana. Illinois. Several schools will see their futures altered by the storm when it comes.

Of course, all of this is conjecture for now. The super-league may end up being big enough that only those schools not part of what used to be called the Power 5 (RIP, Pac-12) are left on the cutting floor. If that’s the case, what changes for Arkansas? Little, it seems. They’ll continue the status quo, getting dismantled more often than not in football while likely maintaining quality elsewhere. Such would even be the case if the super-tier split teams into geographic conferences (leagues? Divisions? Who knows). Who in that proposed Southwest Division is Arkansas going to consistently beat?

The brass at Arkansas probably isn’t exactly eager for the change to arrive. Football will either get beat up on but able to keep subsidizing the winning programs, or football will improve its chances at consistent success in the second tier while the school sacrifices some success in the sports that generate less revenue.

Out there in daily life, we regular folks wrongly equate money with success. Soon, Arkansas may have to choose which it wants more.

Welcome to America.

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The thing about any of these proposals is that things are moving so fast, many of them quickly become moot. Would Arkansas want to actively pay its players, including the women?

Three guys who have reported on the game for a long time have an interesting discussion about the possibilities and proposals here. Legitimately worth a watch.

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