Over the years, Arkansas has been home to a thriving sports culture. Little Rock has historically been recognized as the state’s sports epicenter. However, a remarkable shift has occurred with recent events solidifying Northwest Arkansas as the Sports Capital of Arkansas.
The announcement on July 12 that a group plans to bring two professional soccer teams – one men’s and one women’s – to Rogers, along with a 5,000-seat soccer-specific stadium near the Walmart AMP (which hosts much better concerts than Little Rock, by the way), cemented the title change.
Yes, you read that correctly – soccer is an indicator of a sea change in the Arkansas sports landscape.
Little Rock’s Early Lead
When it comes to pro sports, Little Rock had a long headstart over NWA.
When the Major League Baseball farm system began in the 1930s, the Little Rock Travelers were included. When the Southern Association folded, the Arkansas Travelers emerged from the ashes in 1963 and built a long legacy at Ray Winder Field and now Dickey-Stephens Park.
Central Arkansas had two minor league hockey teams in the RiverBlades (1999-2003) and GlacierCats (1998-2000). For 10 seasons, the Arkansas Twisters – a minor league arena football league team – called North Little Rock home.
There was even an NBA farm team called the RimRockers that played in North Little Rock for three seasons.
What did Northwest Arkansas have?
As for professional sports, the landscape was empty until 2008 when the Northwest Arkansas Naturals took the field. But NWA did have the Razorbacks … sort of.
Remembering the Great Stadium Debate
For decades, the Arkansas football team would pile onto buses and caravan down Highway 71 to play “home” games at War Memorial Stadium.
When the tradition started, it made sense. Northwest Arkansas was a collection of small towns, while Little Rock was the state capital. It had more people, more money and more to offer than the Mayberry-esque towns of Benton and Washington counties.
But after the school joined the Southeastern Conference, the justifications for Arkansas playing in Little Rock began to fade. Other factors – ranging from the completion of I-49 between Alma and Fayetteville, NCAA regulations on recruiting visits, the expansion of Reynolds Razorback Stadium and the decline of War Memorial Stadium along with the explosive population growth of the Fayetteville/Springdale/Rogers/Bentonville quadplex – resulted in Little Rock getting just one game per season for a while. Now, it’s sporadic. In 2023, the season-opening tune-up against Western Carolina is the only War Memorial game on the calendar.
But of all the rivalries in Arkansas football history, none was more heated than the Great Stadium Debate. It pitted Northwest Arkansas against the rest of the state. In fact, during the 2000s and 2010s, the GSD was THE hot topic in Arkansas sports.
When June rolled around, you knew somebody was going to bring it up on a local radio show because the phone lines would light up and the hosts could cruise through the show with minimal effort. Enough ink was spilled by sports columnists to paint every inch of I-40 from Van Buren to West Memphis. And the nascent Internet message boards would have threads of hundreds – if not thousands – of posts arguing back and forth. Names were called. Cussin’ outs were given. Y’all, it got ugly.
To The Scoreboard
Back to futbol, where it was announced the NWA men’s team will play in the United Soccer League Championship division – which is one step below Major League Soccer in the U.S. soccer hierarchy.
The USL owners are voting this month about implementing promotion/relegation between the Championship and League One. However, the semi-pro League Two would not be included.
This means there will not be an in-state futbol rivalry between USL Arkansas and Little Rock Rangers.
The women’s USL team will also benefit from the fast-growing fanbase Colby Hale’s Razorback soccer program has been developing the past few seasons. Arkansas has consistently been in the top 10 in women’s soccer attendance across Division I. Allowing fans to get to know players on campus and then follow them to Pinnacle Hills would be a winning proposition.
While the lack of an in-state rivalry is a bummer, USL Arkansas being in the USL’s top tier alongside the likes of San Diego, Memphis, Oklahoma City and Tulsa gives it the win in the virtual head-to-head.
Edge: Northwest Arkansas
In minor league baseball, the Naturals have won two league titles, four division titles and eight half-season titles. In the same timeframe, the Travs have won one league title, three division titles and eight half-season titles.
Edge: Northwest Arkansas
In other sports, NWA has the edge in professional cycling thanks to the Joe Martin Stage Race, a host of gravel races that attract pro teams, US Pro Cup mountain bike races and the 2022 UCI Cyclocross World Championship. NWA also has the LPGA Walmart Northwest Arkansas Classic and the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell – which brings in hundreds of the best rock climbers.
Edge: Northwest Arkansas
After generations of playing meaningful Arkansas football games in War Memorial Stadium, those days are mostly over. Central Arkansans get the Razorbacks against Western Carolina this season. Their next important game in War Memorial won’t be until 2025 when they finally face Arkansas State.
Fayetteville gets the truly important games – the ones that matter – against SEC opponents. Occasional non-conference patsies in basketball and baseball show up against the Razorbacks in central Arkansas, too.
Edge: Northwest Arkansas
The New Champ of Arkansas
While central Arkansans may get salty about it, it’s time to acknowledge the center of the state’s sports universe is now in Northwest Arkansas.
Given the region’s continued growth and deep pockets, there’s no reason to think it will change any time soon.
See more about Northwest Arkansas’ new pro soccer team:
NFL Games in Arkansas
Although War Memorial Stadium is no longer the state’s crown jewel among venue, it still holds the designation of being the only Arkansas stadium to host NFL/AFL games.
The first time came in 1949, just a year after it opened. The star attraction was Clyde Scott, the former Arkansas All-American near the start of his pro career with the defending NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles (who had trained in Hot Springs). That game on September 10 against the New York Giants resulted in a 10-10 tie.
Then, during the 1952 preseason, the Eagles played the Detroit Lions who had also trained in Hot Springs that year. The Lions defeated Philadelphia 7-3. Arkansas alumnus Pat Summerall had just been drafted by the Lions, so Arkansas football fans were cheering for both Summerall and Scott.
Finally, in 1964, War Memorial hosted an American Football League (AFL) preseason game between the Houston Oilers and the San Diego Chargers. The latter featured former Arkansas All-American receiver Lance Alworth. “Alworth caught three passes in the final, game-winning drive of a high scoring affair with the Oilers,” Jim Best wrote for the Resident News Network. “The game was won with just a little more than a minute to go, and the Arkansas crowd of 22,000 was treated to a thriller of a game.”
More coverage of Arkansas soccer and other sports from BoAS…