Before thrusting myself into the middle of arguably the most heated Arkansas football debate currently dividing the fan base, let’s get a few things out of the way.
Yes, I have lived in Northwest Arkansas my entire life. However, some of my most cherished memories growing up involve traveling to Little Rock to watch the Razorbacks play at War Memorial Stadium with my grandfather.
I’ll never forget forcing him to stay until the bitter end of the 2008 LSU game and witnessing Miracle on Markham II. (He missed the first version of the play six years earlier because he left to beat the traffic, thinking it was over.)
As a 16-year-old, tears literally filled my eyes when “Pour Some Sugar On Me” blared from the PA and fans tossed sugar cubes in the air after Arkansas seemingly clinched a spot in the Sugar Bowl by beating the Tigers in 2010.
The first time I ever saw a publicly intoxicated person vomit in public? You guessed it – the golf course outside of War Memorial Stadium after a game.
That was more than a decade ago, though. Now I’m a sportswriter and it’s my job — and duty — to be an unbiased voice for the fans rather than a fan myself. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t pain me to write what must be written…
It’s time for the tradition of Arkansas football games at War Memorial Stadium as we know it to die.
Stating the Facts for Arkansas Football
There was a time that playing in Little Rock made sense. Getting to Fayetteville used to be difficult and there were more people in the central part of the state. War Memorial Stadium was also a much larger and better venue than Razorback Stadium, so it became a home away from home.
Those times are long gone. With the completion of the north end zone in 2019, the Razorbacks’ on-campus stadium’s capacity increased to 76,000. That is 40% larger than War Memorial Stadium, which seats 54,120.
That alone is why Arkansas will never again play an SEC game or non-conference matchup with a Power Five team in Little Rock. It would be leaving too much money on the table. Instead, the Razorbacks play teams like Western Carolina, UAPB and Florida A&M down there.
As a result, attendance has suffered. The crowd for Saturday’s 56-13 shellacking of Western Carolina was just 44,397 — an embarrassingly low number for an SEC team.
Missouri, a program most Arkansas fans look down upon, drew 50,434 fans for its season-opener against South Dakota and that was on a Thursday night.
Sure, it was hot and kickoff got moved up three hours the week of the game, but there seem to be an endless number of excuses every time the Razorbacks play in the state’s capital city. Many of them also apply to FCS games in Fayetteville and those have averaged 67,866 fans since 2005.
While it’s fair to point out that Arkansas wouldn’t pack Razorback Stadium for these “no-name” schools, it’s indisputable that such matchups draw bigger crowds in Fayetteville than Little Rock.
Then there’s the fact that Arkansas can’t host recruits for official or unofficial visits at War Memorial Stadium because of NCAA rules. In a column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, however, Rex Nelson dismissed this argument.
He’s right that it won’t “doom” the program, but it’s also not “ludicrous” to say it’s a detriment. Of course Sam Pittman would rather have recruits in town for games against the likes of Alabama and LSU, but another date to have players on campus is still beneficial.
Some players may only be able to visit that particular weekend and for Arkansas, more so than a lot of schools, getting recruits on campus is half the battle because they’re usually blown away by how different the area is than the stereotype often associated with the state.
Problems at War Memorial Stadium
Then there’s the topic of the stadium itself. It seems like something goes wrong every Arkansas football game there. On Saturday, we were blessed with functioning game and play clocks, but apparently had to sacrifice the referee mic to get them.
The issues extended far beyond the game, though.
With a new mobile ticketing system in place, some fans experienced long waits to get into the stadium. However, that shouldn’t necessarily be held against War Memorial Stadium because there’s a good chance those problems also occur next week in Fayetteville.
More problematic was the fact that the stadium ran out of bottled water well before the end of the game — especially when kickoff was moved because of the heat. That wasn’t the only thing rankling the fans who voiced their complaints on social media, either:
These kinds of issues simply cannot happen when you’re campaigning for Arkansas football games to continue at your venue and you get one chance a year to showcase it with something other than the Salt Bowl, high school football championships or semi-pro soccer.
Potential Compromise for Arkansas, War Memorial Stadium
Short of playing a big-name opponent in Little Rock, which won’t again happen, there is likely only one game that would generate enough interest to pack War Memorial Stadium.
It used to be so unrealistic that it wasn’t even worth mentioning, but now the “rivalry” is on the schedule for 2025 – Arkansas vs Arkansas State.
Between fans coming down from Jonesboro and Fayetteville, plus the Arkansas (and Arkansas State) fans across the state, it should be a hot ticket.
In his Sunday column, Rex Nelson suggested it should be an annual matchup. That is probably unrealistic, as that’d cost Arkansas a home game every year, but why couldn’t it happen every two or four years?
With the SEC possibly (likely?) moving to a nine-game conference schedule in the future, there will be some years Arkansas has four home SEC games and five road SEC games. It would be unfortunate to then only have two non-conference games in Fayetteville because only half of them would be at home.
The Razorbacks could time it so that the Arkansas State game in Little Rock is played the years they have five home SEC games and four road SEC games. That way they’d still have seven Fayetteville dates.
It would also have a financial benefit that has gotten lost in the hoopla of the game finally happening. Arkansas is paying Arkansas State only $900,000 for the game. That is significantly less than what it pays other Group of Five teams for non-conference games.
By playing Arkansas State, the UA is saving about $700,000. As long as the Red Wolves continue to agree to that discounted guarantee, it wouldn’t hurt to play them in Little Rock every now and then — but only if they also agree to play by the Razorbacks’ rules regarding which seasons those games must happen.
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