In 1992 the Arkansas Razorbacks officially joined the Southeastern Conference, leaving their longtime home in the Southwest Conference. Since then, Arkansas has seen enormous success across all sports, and just last year was ranked No. 20 in a list of most valuable collegiate athletic programs.
Aside from more revenue, exposure and success, Arkansas fans sought something else from the SEC: respect. Fast-forward nearly three decades later, and Arkansas fans are still waiting for it.
In light of the awful officiating in Arkansas football’s losses at Auburn in week three and vs. LSU in week eight this season, the talk across the fanbase has changed. The bad officiating this year is just the latest example of the league office giving Arkansas the short end of the stick.
When Missouri and Texas A&M jumped from the Big 12 to the SEC in 2012, the league office decided to move the Arkansas-LSU “Battle for the Golden Boot” from its’ traditional Thanksgiving week date. Instead of playing Arkansas, LSU now plays Texas A&M which the league sees as a more lucrative matchup. Instead of playing LSU, Arkansas now plays Missouri in the “Battle Line Rivalry” even though it is not in fact a rivalry.
Fans are sure to remember the name Perry Costello, the umpire whose controversial calls in Arkansas baseball games have made headlines. Most notably, his infamous strike zone in the 2012 College World Series that helped end Arkansas’ season.
Even further back than that was the infamous 2009 football game at No. 1 Florida, where Marc Curles was introduced to Arkansas fans for the first time. These are just a few of the things that have led to mounting frustration from fans with the SEC league offices. What was always a “What if?” among fans is now a “Why not?” in regard to Arkansas leaving the SEC.
If Arkansas were to leave the SEC, the most logical move would be joining the Big 12 Conference. This would reunite them with old SWC rivals Texas, Baylor and TCU while creating new rivalries with teams like Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas.
By adding Arkansas, the Big 12 would have to add another team to the conference since they currently only have ten schools. Former members Nebraska and Colorado immediately come to mind. Seeing Arkansas jump ship from the SEC could make it easier for the league to add other schools, jumpstarting another wave of conference realignment across the country. Ironically, it was Nebraska and Colorado leaving the Big 12 in 2011 that started the last major wave of realignment.
In 2010, before this last wave of realignment began, Orangebloods.com reported that Arkansas had actually “put out feelers about potentially joining the Big 12.” Obviously, this didn’t pan out because Arkansas is still in the SEC, but who’s to say that there wasn’t mutual interest that could still exist today.
Arkansas in the Big 12 Pecking Order
Arkansas would get immediate respect for joining the conference most likely due to the tradition and history the program has from their days in the SWC. The SWC was made up of all Texas schools and Arkansas but folded in the 1990s. The Big 12 inherited most of the schools that made up the SWC.
Arkansas wouldn’t be bringing a large market with them that would suddenly cause the league to have a larger television deal and increase leaguewide revenues. However, the optics alone that come with leaving the mighty SEC for another conference, which hasn’t happened since 1966, are sure to put Arkansas near the top of the Big 12’s “respect rankings.”
The potential for new and exciting rivalries while reigniting old rivalries are sure to offset at least some of the logistical and financial issues a move this bold would cause. Welcoming Texas or Oklahoma into a packed Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium or welcoming Kansas or Baylor into a packed Bud Walton Arena are exactly the kinds of things that both fans and league officials would dream of.
It wouldn’t be hard for Arkansas to fit into the Big 12. Right now, there is a clear drop off from Texas and Oklahoma to the rest of the programs in the conference. Programs like Baylor, Oklahoma State, and Kansas all have tried to work their way into that clear No. 3 spot behind Oklahoma and Texas but aren’t there yet. For instance, Kansas is a blue-blood and powerhouse in men’s basketball, but due to their struggles in football, baseball and other sports they don’t have the ability to grow a reputation of success and tradition past men’s basketball. Former Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long, now at Kansas, has failed to make Kansas football even slightly respectable so far. This makes his firing from Arkansas look better and better in hindsight.
Arkansas would have the ability to fit right into that clear No. 3 spot behind Oklahoma and Texas, with the potential to grow the program beyond. Arkansas has successful athletic programs across the board. Texas generated the most revenue of any collegiate athletic program in 2019 and Oklahoma was No. 8. The next closest Big 12 team was No. 28 Kansas, then No. 40 West Virginia. At No. 20 on that list, Arkansas could be a clear No. 3 in the Big 12.
Arkansas’ athletic programs are successful across the board. In the 2019 baseball season, Arkansas averaged 8,719 fans a game. They ranked fourth in the nation and Texas was the closest Big 12 program, ranked sixth and averaging only 5,493 fans per game. Arkansas would be the clear No. 1 in Big 12 baseball. Women’s soccer just finished second in the SEC and the track programs need no introduction. With basketball and football both showing signs of improvement, being competitive in the Big 12 would be no issue.
In the SEC, Arkansas will always be “little brother” to legacy programs like Alabama, LSU, Florida and Georgia who have been in the league since 1932. That has been the frustration from fans, that Arkansas will never get the respect from league officials on or off the field. Being “little brother” to half of the league is a lot worse than only being “little brother” to two teams. In the Big 12, Arkansas’ competitiveness would command the respect of the league office. It wouldn’t have to be earned because it would be there from day one.
Here’s former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops’ take on it:
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?
While Arkansas would have respect in the Big 12, it would come at a significant cost. In 2019, the SEC ranked second among Power 5 conferences in total revenue with $721 million behind the Big Ten. The Big 12 was ranked fifth with $439 million. The payouts per school were approximately $7 million more in the SEC than the Big 12. That can make a huge difference when trying to be competitive in sports other than football and basketball.
Dave Van Horn was asked about this earlier this year and shared his thoughts on Arkansas playing in the SEC and the financial side that comes with it. “There’s seven teams in our league (the SEC West), and I think five of them are like (nationally) one through five in attendance, which is amazing,” he said. “So, there’s money being generated. We’re able to fund our own budget and make a little money.”
Van Horn went even further to talk about how the SEC’s prestige helps with recruiting. “Top to bottom there is not a better league,” Van Horn said. “It helps us in recruiting because a lot of kids want to play in our league. The ones that are really confident, they say, ‘I want to play in the SEC.’ So, it gives us a little bit of an advantage there.”
Moving to the Big 12 would immediately give Arkansas an easier road to success in football and basketball, while getting more respect from the league office. However, there is a price to pay for that success and respect. Right now, it’s about $7 million. The prestige and financial advantage that comes with playing in the SEC shouldn’t be overlooked. The grass on the other side isn’t always as green as it seems.
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