As Razorback Past Wanes, War Memorial Stadium’s Soccer Future Should Wax

Arkansas and Michigan became U.S. states during the same year It's time they do something else together,
Arkansas and Michigan became U.S. states during the same year It’s time they do something else together,

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?

* Cohen couldn’t recall the names of the pro soccer clubs or if they were in the MLS or not. Staggs didn’t recall ever preliminary discussions with any soccer clubs.

Razorbacks’ 2015 Schedule Portends Death of Little Rock Tradition

Sign of the End Times
Sign of the End Times

“This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but with a whimper.”

– T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

 

Yesterday, Arkansas released its 2015 schedule. Also released: Any enduring hope among Razorback fans that Little Rock and its no-longer-grand-enough War Memorial Stadium will remain a second home.

The process of ushering the doddering old man out the door has been ongoing for about 15 years now, ever since Fayetteville’s Reynolds Razorback Stadium expanded to 72,000 from 51,000 seats – meaning Hogs leave significant money on the table every time it plays a home game away from its home campus at the 55,000-seat War Memorial Stadium instead.

Games at War Memorial have dropped from three or four a year, to two a year – and starting this season through 2018 – one a year. This Saturday’s game in Little Rock against No. 10 Georgia, the SEC East frontrunner, is a marquee matchup with enough significance to somewhat soften the blow for some War Memorial traditionalists. It should be a sellout.

Not so with next year’s Little Rock game against the University of Toledo, a Mid-American Conference program that has lost all three games it has ever played against SEC competition. This Arkansas-Toledo game, which marks the first time since 1947 (vs. North Texas) Arkansas hasn’t played a conference home game in Little Rock, is the latest sign Razorback leaders are phasing out the home-away-from-home tradition altogether.  Given the opponent isn’t even in a Power 5 conference, “how many people will pony up $55 or more per person just to see Arkansas vs Toledo?,” Arkansas Fight’s Doc Harper asked.  “I can envision more people than usual staying on the golf course.”

Some fans may feel remorse Little Rock’s once central place in the Razorbacks’ schedule has been knocked down so many rungs, but they shouldn’t forget the main motives behind this demotion – “brand building” and revenue generation – are the same reasons Little Rock was used as a second home in the first place. In the early 1930s, Arkansas leaders knew if their program was ever going to become nationally competitive it needed to have more support from its entire state, to stop losing the likes of Ken Kavanaugh (Little Rock High grad) to LSU and Don Hutson (Pine Bluff High) and Paul Bryant (Fordyce High) to Alabama. So Arkansas leaders, like leaders at Alabama, Mississippi State and Oregon State, decided to take their team away from its rural campus and parade it in a bigger, in-state city in front of more media and fans.

Oregon did the same by traveling from Eugene to Portland. Washington State traveled from Pullman to Spokane, while Ole Miss traveled to Jackson and Auburn traveled to Birmingham. Each of the programs pulled out of these metro areas at different times but one overriding reason is the same as in Arkansas’ case – the campus’ stadium simply outgrew the metro area’s stadium.

Across the U.S., examples of home away from home traditions are legion.

This especially came to the fore in the late 1980s as Auburn jockeyed to stop playing Iron Bowl games in Birmingham, as I wrote in the New York Times last  November: “Auburn leaders increasingly supported moving the game from the 75,000-seat Legion Field to the university’s expanded Jordan-Hare Stadium, which could hold 85,000. Housel [a former Auburn athletic director] said it got to the point that even Auburn fans living in Birmingham were so ready to drive the 120 miles to campus, they would ‘refuse to buy tickets to the Auburn-Alabama game if it was in Birmingham.’”

Every team, as you see in the chart below, has dropped its dual home arrangement in the last 50 years. And programs like Oregon, Virginia Tech, Alabama and Auburn have gone on to contend for or win national championships since the drop. Yes, War Memorialists, it’s true: Arkansas has become unique in the sense that it appears to be the only program still hanging on to this practice.

But is that something to be proud of?

It’s better to be proud of winning at a high level, a la Oregon, Auburn and Alabama. But clinging to War Memorial hasn’t recently helped Arkansas get to this level. Its function was served in helping lift Arkansas to the nationally elite level it enjoyed in much of the 1960s through 1980s. It will not serve in getting Arkansas to the level Jeff Long, Bret Bielema et al expect it to reach in the later 2010s and 2020s.

In the 1930s and 40s, the smartest rural programs traveled 30, 50, 100, 150 miles to the in-state stadia that would give their teams the most bang for their buck in terms of exposure and revenue. In today’s world, where cable television and the Internet make distance far less of an obstacle for fans to follow their teams, the smartest programs realize that “neutral site” games in the obscenely talent-rich metro areas of Texas often provide the best return.

This is an update of an earlier Sports Seer post. Read the original here

Other Schools with Multiple Home Stadia

Oregon
Home Campus: Eugene
Home Away From Home: Portland
Years Played There: On and off until 1924, then every year through 1966.
Last Game: 1970
Distance Between Homes: 105 miles

Big Win: 21-0 over a UCLA team that would finish 8-2 on Oct. 5, 1957.
Sample Decade: 1952-62: Record of 11-11*

*Includes rivalry games w/ Oregon State


Oregon State
Home Campus: Corvallis

Home Away From Home: Portland
Years Played There: On and off until 1941, then every year through 1973. (w/ exception of two WWII years in which team wasn’t fielded)
Last Game: 1986
Distance Between Homes: 74 miles

Big Win: Oct. 16, 1971- 24-18 over an Arizona State team which would finish 11-1.
Sample Decade: 1963-73: Record of 11-4


Washington State
Home Campus: Pullman

#1 Home Away From Home: Spokane*
Years Played There: 1950-1983
Last Game: 1983
Distance Between Homes: 66 miles

*In 1970, WSU’s home stadium burned due to suspected arson (possibly involving a perpetrator from the rival University of Idaho only eight miles away). As a result, WSU played all its home games in Spokane in 1970 and 1971.

Big Win: Sept. 23, 1978 – 51-26 over an Arizona State team which would finish 51-26.
Sample Decade: 1973-83: Record of 8-12

#2 Home Away From Home: Seattle (the Seattle Seahawks’ stadium, Centurylink Field)
Years Played non-UW opponents there: 2002 through 2008; 2011; 2012-14*
Last Game: Ongoing
Distance Between Homes: 252

Big Win: August 31, 2002 – 31-7 over Nevada to set the tone for a 10-3 season that ended in the Rose Bowl.
Record since 2002 at what’s now Centurylink Field: 6-4

*N.B. the campus of this program’s rival – the University of Washington – is in Seattle. So WSU often plays WU there. Washington State had also played three home games in Seattle against out-of-state powerhouses (USC, Ohio State) in the 1970s. It lost them all.


Continue reading Razorbacks’ 2015 Schedule Portends Death of Little Rock Tradition

This North Little Rock High Football Player’s Shorts Are On Fire

North Little Rock High School, Arkansas’ No. 2 ranked team, clashes this Friday night with No. 1 Fayetteville at War Memorial Stadium. It promises to be an epic showdown – ‘dogs vs. ‘cats, Central Arkansas vs Northwest Arkansas and a rematch of North Little Rock’s heart-breaking loss in the 2012 state semis.

Suffice to say, for the players, this warrants getting just a little hype.

Or a lot hype.

Or … this:

http://instagram.com/p/sySCNLOLue/

Because what Charging Wildcat worth his six pack doesn’t like to sneak a little King of Pop action into his NLR O’ Donovan School of Irish Dance homework?

lmirish3

 

 

Arkansas Fans, Get a Grip: War Memorial Stadium Tradition Not So Special

Arkansas will play one game per year in Little Rock through 2018.
Arkansas will play one game per year in Little Rock through 2018.

Arkansas fans are right to believe some of their traditions are truly unique. There are, after all, tens of college programs named after Wildcats or Tigers or some permutation of Bear, but there is only one named for the Razorback. And no group of fans, no matter how much they chomp, stomp or damn eagles, has thrown out anything that remotely resembles the Ozarkian eeriness that is the Hog Call. Suiiii generis, indeed.

But in all the recent commotion over Arkansas’ continuing pullout of War Memorial Stadium, I’ve noted a troublesome sentiment that what Arkansas has had all these years in its dual home arrangement has been so wonderfully precious and unique that losing it would present a blow the program may never fully recover from. Not so: plenty other programs split their home games between two stadia for decades. Plenty other fans made memories that lasted a lifetime in the stadium closer to their home. Yes, the other programs stopped doing this. But no, they did not fall apart.

To the contrary, many have thrived since quitting the practice.

These other programs – Oregon, Oregon State, Washington State, Ole Miss, Auburn, Virginia Tech et al – began dual home arrangements for the same, exact reason Arkansas started doing it in Little Rock in 1932: exposure, revenue and what today is called “brand building.” Arkansas leaders knew if their program was ever going to become nationally competitive it needed to have more support from its state, to stop losing the likes of Ken Kavanaugh (Little Rock High grad) to LSU and Don Hutson (Pine Bluff High) and Paul Bryant (Fordyce High) to Alabama. So Arkansas leaders, like leaders at Alabama, Mississippi State and Oregon State, decided to take their team away from its rural campus and parade it in a bigger, in-state city in front of more media and fans.*

Oregon did the same by traveling from Eugene to Portland. Washington State traveled from Pullman to Spokane, while Ole Miss traveled to Jackson and Auburn traveled to Birmingham. Each of the programs pulled out of these metro areas at different times but one overriding reason is the same as in Arkansas’ case – the campus’ stadium simply outgrew the metro area’s stadium. This especially came to the fore in the late 1980s as Auburn jockeyed to stop playing Iron Bowl games in Birmingham, as I wrote in a recent New York Times article: “Auburn leaders increasingly supported moving the game from the 75,000-seat Legion Field to the university’s expanded Jordan-Hare Stadium, which could hold 85,000. Housel [a former Auburn athletic director] said it got to the point that even Auburn fans living in Birmingham were so ready to drive the 120 miles to campus, they would ‘refuse to buy tickets to the Auburn-Alabama game if it was in Birmingham.'”

Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama.
Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama.

Every team, as you see in the chart below, has dropped its dual home arrangement in the last 50 years. And programs like Oregon, Virginia Tech, Alabama and Auburn have gone on contend for or win national championships since the drop. Yes, you are right: Arkansas has become unique in the sense that it appears to be the only program that is still hanging on to this practice.

But is that something to be proud of?

It’s better to be proud of winning at a high level, a la Oregon, Auburn and Alabama. But hanging on to War Memorial hasn’t recently helped Arkansas get to this level. Its function was served in helping lift Arkansas to the nationally elite level it enjoyed through much of the 1960s through 1980s. It will not serve in getting Arkansas to the level Jeff Long, Bret Bielema et al expect it to reach in the later 2010s and 2020s.

Continue reading Arkansas Fans, Get a Grip: War Memorial Stadium Tradition Not So Special

When the Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams played in Arkansas

There hasn’t been much major pro action in Arkansas since this guy returned to Little Rock in 1964.

In last week’s post about Norris Armstrong, I mentioned players from his NFL team competed in two games in Arkansas in the early 1920s.

I wrote this might have possibly been the only times NFL-associated games were played in Arkansas. Turns out, there have been at least three more such games. All three games were preseason exhibition games and featured teams which had lodged in Hot Springs before hopping on the train for Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium:

1. September 10, 1949 – The world champion Philadelphia Eagles trained in Hot Springs before playing the the Los Angeles Rams to a 24-24 tie in Little Rock.

2. September 1, 1951- The Eagles trained in Hot Springs before losing to the Los Angeles Rams* 31-26.

Twenty-seven thousand people attended this game; it’s fair to assume many were there to see the Eagles’ Clyde Scott, who’d earned All-American honors for the Arkansas Razorback in 1948 before being drafted by Philadelphia the next year. He only played five seasons in the NFL but 1951 would be his finest. He ran for 151 yards, caught for 212 yards and scored four touchdowns altogether.

3. August 23, 1952 – The Detroit Lions trained in Hot Springs, and beat the Eagles 7-3 at War Memorial in front of more than 22,000 spectators. Detroit’s Doak Walker scored the game-winning TD in the fourth quarter.

This time, fans had two former Arkansas Razorback standouts to cheer, as the Lions had drafted kicker Pat Summerall. This would be one of the only games Summerall played for the Lions as an injury cut his rookie season short. He played the rest of his career in Chicago and New York. Summerall ended up making 47% of the field goals he attempted in his career (with a high of 69% in 1959).

At first glance, these numbers look absolutely horrible.

Then I wondered whether field goal accuracy through the decades had improved (in part due to emergence of soccer style kicking and improving training methods). Sure enough, it has, based on these pro-football-reference.com numbers:

Continue reading When the Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams played in Arkansas