Dead Horse A-Twitchin’: Arkansas State’s success breathes new life into old debate, Part 2


In Part 1, we rehashed some of the latest attacks on the University of Arkansas’ long-standing policy of not playing other in-state colleges. The main reasons for those seeking to maintain this policy haven’t changed much through the decades, but the lines of argument for changing the policy have evolved.
And Arkansas State’s football success this season adds new weight to some of these arguments.

To start with, let’s cast naivete aside:  No way Arkansas plays Arkansas State simply because it would be fun for fans, or because playing in-state competition would theoretically pour more money into the state government’s coffers, which would benefit all public universities in Arkansas.

Nope, if Jeff Long’s gonna entertain even the slightest sliver of this possibility, he’d better believe the game would help the UA’s athletic program bottom line now and in the future. This fall, he unveiled plans for a shining football palace which is part of a $320 million plan. This project isn’t touted as a luxury, though. Taking a long view, Arkansas’ AD understands that keeping up with the Jones in the SEC means financing expensive stuff to attract the nation’s best coaches, trainers and players.

Could replacing Troy or North Texas with ASU  on the football schedule help the UA achieve this faster?

Without developing additional streams of revenue and fundraising, Arkansas can’t afford to keep up with far bigger SEC rivals like LSU and Alabama.

Arkansas leaves money on the table every time it plays any Sun Belt team not named Arkansas State. Here’s why:

1) Arkansas paid $900,000 to play a Sun Belt team, Troy, earlier this season in a “rent-a-win”, or guarantee game. Meanwhile, in a similar David vs. Goliath type setup, Illinois paid ASU $850,000. It stands to reason that UA would have the financial upper hand in multiple ways if negotiating a contract to play ASU, including the actual guarantee game fee. It’s likely UA possible could get away with paying ASU even less than what Illinois would pay them. Either way, UA could save $50,000 to $100,000 by playing ASU.

2) No matter how good Arkansas or Arkansas State are playing, an early-season match-up between the programs would sell out the 72,000 seats of Fayetteville’s Razorback Stadium, where the game would likely be played every time. If necessary, the stadium’s seating could be expanded to nearly 80,000 and this would be needed for at least the first time the game was played. A solid Sun Belt team like Troy usually brings around 70,000 people but another 10,000 helps the bottom line, especially if each of the tickets are sold for more than usual. Which, for this game, would make sense.
General admission tickets could be sold at an elevated price ($100, as suggested on a local sports talk show) and if UA fans hesitated to pay that amount, ASU fans would certainly make up the difference.

3) At least for the first couple of times the programs played, there would be a veritable trough-ful of licensing and merchandising opportunities for UA athletics to wallow in. Just conjure up a nice “Natural State Showdown” logo involving the helmets or mascots of both programs, then milk that sucker for all its worth through T-shirts, cakes, commemorative videos, calendars, key-chains – whatever you can stamp. There’s no doubt this stuff would fly off the racks for at least the first couple games.

4) As long as UA and ASU play football, the above reasons will be valid. However, the next few years offer extra enticement to start the series because a Petrino/Freeze era has begun where both teams are playing at very high levels as FBS (Division I-A) programs. Additionally, their brands of ball are entertaining. In early November, both programs were ranked among the nation’s best 27 teams in terms of total offense. The kind of statewide and even national “buzz” surrounding Petrino and building around Freeze means the game would generate additional benefits for the UA:

a) Why let size of the stadium dictate how many tickets can be sold? Look at bringing in lawn chairs and selling that seating area on the knoll on the north side of Razorback Stadium. Or set up seats/bleachers around a few giant flat-screen TVs outside the stadium and sell those seats. I think there would be enough interest in this game to make exploring such options worthwhile.

b) Troy versus Arkansas game hardly generates a blip on the national radar. But the first time Ark State plays Arkansas, there would be substantial interest from major media outlets because of how unique the situation is on a national scale (think of how nearly every state’s elite sports program plays intrastate competition – even Nebraska plays Creighton in basketball).
Additionally, with such strong, innovative offensives, both programs present an intriguing match-up, the intrastate stuff notwithstanding. At least that first game would warrant a prime-time ESPN slot – which provides much more exposure for the UA than a UA-Troy match-up.
This is a counterargument for the argument that UA would lose recruiting exposure by playing in-state competition (when it is assumed most residents are Razorbacks fans anyway).

5) ASU would hardly ever win in this series. Consider Arkansas is 28-0 against current Sun Belt teams, while Arkansas State is 3-79-3 all-time against current BCS schools. Still, it’s possible ASU would win once in a blue moon, and that win would temporarily make major waves. But those waves wouldn’t rock the UA’s foundation of in-state support and loyalty built on decades of tradition and success. The Razorbacks still went on to thrive after a 1992 loss to Division I-AA Citadel (the same level in which UCA plays now), and would still thrive after a rare loss to ASU.
“If playing or even losing to ASU/UCA/UALR/UAPB is detrimental in the long run to UA’s athletic program, then it’s a house of cards to begin with,” Hogville member ExArky wrote on the Razorbacks message board. “Arkansas dodging in-state play over an outdated policy just makes the state as a whole look backwards.”

6) Another reason to strike while the iron is hot: Beyond mere economics, if the Razorbacks are annually grabbing guaranteed wins by trouncing Sun Belt teams anyway, they might as well play the best Sun Belt team for the sake of their own BCS rankings. The BCS ranking bots involve strength of schedule when churning out rankings, so it helps to play “rent-a-win” or guarantee games against teams that will finish the season as champions of their own, smaller conferences. Every extra computer-generated point counts, and in recent years the Sun Belt teams most likely to give Arkansas that small boost were Troy or North Texas. But if Freeze stays in Jonesboro, there is a good chance ASU will often rank as its conference’s best team.

It’s true there won’t be much difference in beating A-State as the best Sun Belt team and Troy as the second, third or fourth-best Sun Belt team. But you never know when that difference helps Arkansas qualify for a BCS bowl or not. And A-State’s emergence as a quick-strike, mid-major power willing to unleash multiple trick plays means it’s also becoming the Sun Belt team mostly likely to upset an average BCS team (the caliber of Illinois) in the coming years. A good BCS team (i.e. Arkansas) would especially benefit from beating Arkansas State in such a year. And that win may end up providing the necessary BCS rankings oomph to push the Razorbacks into the Sugar Bowl or National Championship game (via the SEC Championship game) over some of Arkansas’ top rivals for conference supremacy.

In 1946, beating the likes of Alabama and LSU convinced UA athletic director John Barnhill to stop playing in-state competition.

More than 65 years later, that policy appears increasingly threatened for the same reason.

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