Columns » Max Brantley

Football for UA Little Rock

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Andrew Rogerson, the new chancellor at UA Little Rock, has decided to study the cost of starting a major college football team on campus (plus a marching band). Technically, it would be a revival of football, dropped more than 60 years ago when the school was a junior college.

Rogerson says he's a scientist and he wants to see some numbers.

No NASA engineers will be required to tell him the numbers will take some massaging to look good. They will have to be influenced by hard-to-quantify claims that football means an increased enrollment, greater college-directed philanthropy, community economic benefits and general enthusiasm for a popular sport.

The Arkansas experience provides contrary evidence. Only the Arkansas Razorbacks have a self-supporting athletic department, thanks to huge revenue from a football TV contract. Premium seat sales and big donors help.

Elsewhere in Arkansas, big-time sports are costly and don't produce attendance or private contributions to match.

Arkansas State University in Jonesboro keeps adding to its stadium and raising coaches' pay, running up $43 million in expenses last year according to a 2015-16 NCAA report. To cover the costs, it required $5 million in student fees and $8 million in school funds. Athletic spending has risen sharply the last five years on the ASU campus, according to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, to more than $84,000 per athlete while academic spending on campus has held essentially flat over five years at $7,983 per student. The athletic department managed only $1.7 million in ticket sales for sporting events, enough to cover about 4 percent of athletic costs.

Other Division I schools struggle more. UA Little Rock is already tapping students for $3.8 million and general funds for $3.9 million to support the existing sports, with basketball the marquee sport in a department currently spending $11.4 million.

UA Pine Bluff plays Division I sports. It hasn't been a ticket to community resurgence, such as Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola seems to believe is a byproduct. Its $7 million Athletic Department is almost wholly funded by students ($1 million) and university money ($5 million).

Up in Conway, the University of Central Arkansas has invested in stadium and coaches to go big-time. Its athletic department took in $12.7 million last year, $4.9 million from student fees and $4.5 million from school funds. It realized not even a half-million dollars in ticket sales.

Little Rock doesn't have much room to grow revenue from students, though grow it must to finance football, the most expensive of all sports. The school's state money is already tapped to the maximum. It can pick up a couple of million by selling itself as a cupcake matchup to one of the handful of big-time schools that make money on athletics. But a tightening cable TV market plus evidence of football burnout doesn't offer much hope for TV revenue to make up shortages.

Is there a major philanthropist ready to pony up a huge gift to start football at a campus still striving to establish a residential identity to go with its long mission as a commuter school catering to a large number of so-called nontraditional students? Maybe Rogerson could pay a call on the Walton family. They owe UA Little Rock big time for giving them a piece of the campus for a Little Rock School District-damaging charter school. Maybe they'd offer a gratuity for a football team.

Little Rock won't have to build a stadium. The state Parks and Tourism Department, which now controls War Memorial Stadium, is helping to pay for the football study in hopes Little Rock will produce a paying customer. The Razorbacks are down to a game a year there and it's probably gone in a year.

Taxing college students with new fees to pay the rent on a football stadium will be a mathematical equation that Chancellor Rogerson might have a hard time selling — even to a remedial math class.

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