Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long isn’t quite ready to talk about the long-term future of football games in central Arkansas, and he’s not quite sure when that discussion will take place.
Long, speaking following a meeting of the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club on Wednesday, said no new negotiations are planned between the university and Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium — where the Razorbacks will face Samford on Saturday.
The game is one of two annually Arkansas is under contract to play in Little Rock through the 2016 season. However, the stadium’s manager, Charlie Staggs, told The Associated Press last year he was concerned Arkansas might want to play few games in the 53,955-seat venue when the contract runs out.
It’s a subject that new Arkansas coach Bret Bielema brought back to the forefront of discussion earlier this week when he spoke about his first game in Little Rock.
”To be quite honest, I know that is a home game on our schedule, but we as coaches and players have to treat it as a road game,” Bielema said.
Long said he agrees with Bielema’s statement about the road game regarding the travel, but not in terms of environment — which he considers that of a home game. To help with Bielema’s travel concerns, Long said the Razorbacks will fly home to Fayetteville following Saturday’s game rather than make the 3 1/2-hour drive by bus.
”We’re in a unique situation,” Long said. ”…I never thought about it in this way, but when you bus to that game, it is your longest road trip of the year and it’s a home game.”
War Memorial’s 2000 contract with Arkansas originally ran through the 2014 season and called for three football games to be played in Little Rock in four of the 15 seasons. The contract was amended in 2008 — extending the duration through 2016 while keeping the number of annual games at two, including one Southeastern Conference game.
The Razorbacks have played at War Memorial Stadium since it opened in 1948, and they first played in Little Rock in 1906.
However, a 19,000-seat expansion to Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville in 2001 increased that stadium’s capacity to 72,000, fueling discussion that Arkansas could eventually play more games on campus. The school pays the War Memorial commission $75,000 per game, and the stadium also collects concessions and parking fees from the neighboring War Memorial Golf Course – all lost revenue when the Razorbacks don’t play in Razorback Stadium.
Earlier this year, Arkansas’ Board of Trustees also announced plans to study the possible expansion of Razorback Stadium — another potential blow in Little Rock’s attempt to keep two games past 2016.
Long called any discussion of future games in War Memorial Stadium ”premature” on Wednesday, adding that all of the school’s top administrators will be involved in any future negotiations.
”I don’t feel sensitive about it,” Long said. ”We love playing in Little Rock, the fans are great. I think people want to make something out of nothing. We’re going to play in Little Rock. We love playing in Little Rock. You can’t deny that there is a financial piece to this, and there is a travel piece to it, but those facts have been around for a long time.”
Making scheduling more difficult for Arkansas and Long has been the addition of Texas A&M to the SEC. Following this season’s trip to Fayetteville by the Aggies, the game will once again become an annual event in Cowboys Stadium in Texas – where it was played as a nonconference game before Texas A&M joined the SEC.
That means the Razorbacks will lose one home game in Fayetteville every other year, in addition to the two they play in Little Rock. Long said he would like to play a minimum of five games each year in Razorback Stadium, but there is a possibility of one season where the school might only have four games in Fayetteville.
”So, we’d just have to be prudent in how we plan for that and budget for it and things like that,” Long said. ”It’s not overwhelming. We will just have to make some decisions on how we spend our money with less money to spend.”
The debate over how many games Arkansas should play each season in Little Rock, if any, has been one of the most hotly contested issues in the state surrounding the Razorbacks for more than a decade – ever since the 2001 expansion of Razorback Stadium.
Many in central Arkansas aren’t ready to let go of the Razorbacks, while others in Fayetteville believe the northwest corner of the state believe all home games should be on campus.
Long did his best to sidestep the debate, as well as the looming discussions over the future of games in War Memorial Stadium.
”I don’t feel the pull between the two, I don’t,” Long said. ”I honestly don’t. I don’t feel this big clash thing. Maybe others do. I find a very supportive fan base that wants the Razorbacks to be successful.”