Let me get this out of the way. I love football. No questioning that. But more than my love of football, I love this city. I want to see it do well.
Imagine if you will that a highly popular decision could change the outlook of a city dramatically leading to prosperity. Wouldn’t you want to make that decision?
And imagine if you will that it could also provide a bit of entertainment for a lot of people. Wouldn’t that be a bonus?
Not all of you reading this will be football fans, and some will not be fans of UALR period. So remove that from the equation.
A UALR football team makes more economic sense for Little Rock than not having a team.
For the first time in recent history UALR is actually in the position to field a team. UA has all but pulled out of the city, and indication is that it would easily grant UALR permission to begin a team simply to fully divorce the area for good. Coincidentally the other major obstacle, UALR Athletic Director Chris Peterson, resigned this week from his position. I began writing this article before any news about Peterson leaving. I believe it gives us a chance to fully consider the option for the first time.
So, entertainment aside, what could a UALR football team do to advance the city? It could provide both a short and long term positive economic impact with very low overall risk. We dump millions of economic development dollars every year into areas with higher risk and lower reward. Let me explain.
(re)Building Short Term Economic Impact
Do not underestimate the impact of the Razorbacks dropping to one game a year at War Memorial and most likely pulling out completely within the next five years. If you have ever attempted to drive down Markham on a Razorback game day you know that the 55,000 capacity of War Memorial is no match for the hundreds of thousands on the golf course. That will be missed.
Make no mistake, it will be a long time before UALR ever matches a single weekend impact of the Razorbacks. Every other year in Little Rock against Arkansas State would draw a large crowd, so would creative scheduling against regional opponents. Over 4-5 home games a year UALR has the potential to bring in a decent economic impact to the surrounding area.
Long Term Economic Prosperity
The real value of a UALR football team exists in a long term (10+ years) economic impact. This through a magical phenomenon known as the Flutie Effect.
The Flutie Effect works by suddenly raising a university’s public profile by having a successful athletic (usually football) program. Named after Doug Flutie and the impact his performance had on Boston College during his playing days, the Flutie effect leads to large enrollment increases in successful athletic years.
I fully believe UALR has the potential to be successful, but even the increased awareness of UALR from having a football program will build interest in the university. Ultimately raising enrollment.
Raising enrollment is the most critical thing UALR can do right now. Enrollment at UALR has moved to a barely break even growth. Final Fall enrollment numbers will come out in the October, but early indication is that UALR will have a significant enrollment decline this year.
The overall impact higher education has to a city is greater than any one single factor to long term economic prosperity. You can see it in the success and growth of Conway, NWA, and many other growing cities across the country. Quality higher education attracts companies and encourages start ups. Giving those alumni a strong reason to stick around or come back to the area frequently helps keep the return of that education investment with the city.
Every economic opportunity comes with risk. Through a bit of luck forming a football team carries less risk than, say, throwing millions at an “emerging analytics center” that no one actually knows how to use. In fact the risk to reward factor is higher than nearly every economic initiative we have tried in the last 20 years in Arkansas thanks to the larger population of central Arkansas.
The low risk comes by way of an excellent formula set by universities in almost the exact same situation. University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), Georgia State, and University of South Florida all build a blue print for how UALR can be successful. All are universities positioned in metropolitan areas with an existing football stadium they can use.
A new football team faces three major startup costs. Stadium, equipment, and coaching. UALR is fortunate to have a stadium closer than many on campus stadiums that would love to cut a fantastic deal just to have a solid core occupant. The three universities mentioned above further minimized their costs by borrowing equipment. The case of UTSA they sought a highly successful coach with ties to the area who, due to recent luck, was willing to take a lower paying job to build something special.
Anyone have Tommy Tuberville’s number?
In fact there is almost a higher risk of not forming a football team soon. UALR plays in the Sunbelt conference. Sunbelt is certainly not in college athletic’s elite conferences, but it is far better than a number of other non-football conferences. The Sunbelt has made a steady move to add more high quality football schools over the past 5 years. UALR is one of only two non-football schools playing in the conference. The other school, Texas-Arlington, announced plans to explore adding football within the next few years.
There is a high probability that UALR could be forced out of the Sunbelt conference in the very near future. This would move UALR to the Southland or SWAC conference. I assure you that what little basketball attendance exists now will drop to nothing once that happens.
The potential for success both athletically and economically is very high. With a strong donor base, large recruiting base, and low startup costs UALR could put up a solid football program. With even minimum success though the gains to the area economically exceed any risk associated with starting.
I am not sure who the next AD would be (I will accept nominations), but this has to be the number one priority.