A few months ago, more than 100,000 people flooded into the University of Michigan to watch Real Madrid play Manchester United. A U.S. soccer match attendance record was shattered. Given this sport’s now well-proven and inexorable climb up the American sports popularity food chain, why shouldn’t Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium consider hosting pro or national team soccer matches?
This is the question I recently posed to a few War Memorial officials for an Arkansas Times feature story. I learned they have already begun preliminary discussions with some professional soccer clubs*. A primary obstacle, assistant stadium manager Jerry Cohen told me, is that the stadium field’s four corners, near the goal lines, are appropriate for football but aren’t wide enough for high-level soccer. “We would have to take out a couple rows of seats to make a regulation soccer stadium in there,” stadium manager Charlie Staggs said. “Such a change made to the seats on the east and west sides would cost at least $500,000, he added. “Later on, I think this is a question the commission might want to look at so that we could get some high-profile soccer events in here since soccer is getting so popular now.”
Making this investment and aggressively pursuing elite soccer matches would provide a shot in the arm for War Memorial and the city of Little Rock. The 55,000-person stadium, which just 15 years ago annually hostied three Razorback home games, is now down to one a year. That could well drop to zero after 2018 when its current contract with the UA expires. It needs major sports events to help fill the void more than ever, and soccer is as sure of a bet as a growth industry here as gets. Arkansas’ Hispanic population is quickly growing, and its teenage and young adult sports fans are far more likely than older generations to tune into Premier League soccer along with college football on Saturdays.
War Memorial’s size is a deterrent for the world’s biggest clubs, but for some elite organizations the state’s location should help offset War Memorial’s relatively limited seating. FC Dallas, a Major League Soccer power, is less than three hours from Arkansas’ border and could significantly expand its fan base in Arkansas with a couple timely pre-season appearances. It helps that one of Arkansas’ brightest soccer talents, Thomas Roberts, trains in FC Dallas’ youth development system. If in a few years the club ultimately signs Roberts – who in September captained a Rush Select team that knocked off a Dutch powerhouse Ajax junior club – then the Little Rock native would spark additional statewide interest.
Similarly, just three hours from the state’s northern border, a $75 million-plus National Training and Coaching Development Center to serve as the home base for the U.S. Soccer Federation and its national teams will be built in the next couple of years. It will also attract top-flight junior teams from across the world. Don’t expect the U.S.’s senior national team to play in Little Rock with so many larger venues available, but a game between college-age junior teams – especially those including the Mexican national program – could still draw 50,000+ to War Memorial.
What do you think? As War Memorial’s Razorback football glory days fade, can futbol help it remain a major sports venue?