Arkansas Razorback football games in Little Rock hinge on state officials upgrading War Memorial Stadium before Thanksgiving 2019, according to a signed agreement that partially keeps a seven-decade tradition intact.
The precise cost and specific funding source for the improvements aren't yet known, said Kane Webb, director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, with whom the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville struck the deal to keep Razorback games in the capital.
Webb called the upgrade work "manageable," estimated it would total less than $10 million and said the parks agency will meet its end of the deal.
UA will play its 2019, 2021 and 2023 home games against the Missouri Tigers at War Memorial Stadium, according to the agreement, which was formally announced Thursday. The games are subject to Southeastern Conference and NCAA approval.
The Razorbacks' annual spring game, an intrasquad scrimmage, will be played at the stadium in 2020, 2022 and 2024.
Thursday's official announcement, held outside the storied Markham Street stadium, ended months of speculation and debate about the future of UA football in Little Rock and comes just months ahead of what was the school's last contractually obligated game.
The Razorbacks have played at least one game per year at the stadium -- and 215 in total -- since its 1948 opening.
Officials on Thursday repeatedly described the pact as a compromise -- a way for the Razorbacks to maintain a regular presence in central Arkansas while addressing lingering concerns about attendance, the quality of an aging stadium and shifting home games away from the university's base.
"As with any decision, I know we will have differing perspectives on today's announcement," said UA Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek, now in his sixth month on the job. "While it might not be a perfect solution for our constituents, individually, it is the right decision for Arkansas, collectively."
Chancellor Joe Steinmetz said the university takes "very seriously" the importance of the Razorbacks to a state that lacks a top-tier professional sports franchise, adding that he sees athletics as an important part of "uniting the state."
"Little Rock is not only the capital city, of course, but it's right in the heart -- and may be the heart -- of this great state," Steinmetz said.
Officials plan to host the Missouri games on the Friday or Saturday after Thanksgiving each year, when UA students are on break -- though that is subject to any conference scheduling changes.
Yurachek and his staff first proposed the terms that became the new deal, and the state agreed, the athletic director said during a post-announcement interview.
UA is considered the "home" team for the 2019, 2021 and 2023 games with Texas A&M, which are played in Arlington, Texas. Coupled with the Missouri arrangement, this means Fayetteville would lose two "home" conference games in each of those years.
The university's deals with Parks and Tourism and Texas A&M both expire in 2024, which was done "purposefully" so that they can be re-evaluated at the same time, Yurachek said after the announcement.
"We consider the game here in Little Rock a home game, so we don't consider this a neutral-site game," Yurachek said. "We expect that this stadium will be filled with Razorback fans and it will be as much as a home-field advantage as we have in Fayetteville."
The deal specifies that UA receive at least $2.1 million in ticket sales for each of the three Missouri games -- it increases every two years before hitting $2.5 million in 2023. It also sets a minimum of a 47,000 tickets sold for each of those contests in the 54,000-seat venue.
If the numbers fall short, 60 days of "good faith negotiation" between UA and Parks and Tourism is triggered to determine why and whether changes to the agreement are needed.
Former Athletic Director Jeff Long, whom Steinmetz fired in November, previously told university trustees and state officials that it would take between $5 million to $10 million in work at War Memorial to meet university and conference minimum standards.
A state-commissioned consultant's report released in March says $17 million in work is required to keep the stadium useful.
UA will not pay for upgrades to War Memorial Stadium, a state facility operated by Parks and Tourism, Yurachek said.
The agreement calls for two sets of improvements -- some specified and some pending an SEC facilities working group report -- that, if not completed, could result in either an early end to the deal or a fresh round of negotiations.
The first set of improvements include new synthetic turf, improved broadcasting capability and Internet connection, new stadium speakers and mobile ticket scanning at every gate. The stadium must also meet all "non-structural requirements and recommendations" included in the yet-to-be finished SEC facilities report.
If Parks and Tourism fails to meet these requirements before the first Missouri game, UA can terminate the agreement with 30 days notice.
Upgraded security cameras, an expansion of the home team locker room and compliance with "structural" requirements and recommendations from the SEC working group are among the second phase of improvements. The state must "make best efforts" to finish this phase, also before the first Missouri game.
If the state falls short of these requirements, UA and Parks and Tourism will negotiate a facilities improvement plan to identify what hasn't been finished and set a deadline for its completion.
Pressed about the funding source, Webb said he hasn't yet had a conversation with Gov. Asa Hutchinson on whether the governor would dedicate discretionary money to cover some of the costs.
Webb didn't provide a definitive answer on whether the state would sell bonds to finance the work. He noted that Parks and Tourism has multiple revenue streams, including the stadium, and said other facilities need improvements, as well.
The contract specifies that fans will be able to purchase Coca-Cola products at War Memorial. Pepsi is the UA's exclusive nonalcoholic cold beverage provider on campus. Parks and Tourism must adhere to all other UA trademark licensing and sponsorship agreements.
UA released a signed copy of the agreement minutes before Thursday's announcement. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had filed a request on Tuesday under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act with UA, Parks and Tourism and other agencies for a copy of any draft agreements.
On Wednesday evening, the newspaper reported the framework of the deal, based on sources familiar with the arrangement.
Webb signed the "licensing agreement" on May 9. Yurachek signed on Monday. Steinmetz, who was in Little Rock on Wednesday and Thursday as part of a three-day tour across the state, signed off on Wednesday. All three, plus War Memorial Stadium Commission Chairman Kevin Crass, were part of Thursday's ceremony.
"Sometimes we sell ourselves short with the uniqueness of playing games in Little Rock," Crass said, noting that SEC schools in Mississippi and Alabama stopped playing in their state capitals years ago. "Where Jackson and Birmingham have failed, Little Rock has thrived and survived."
Mark Waldrip, chairman of the University of Arkansas System board of trustees, in a telephone interview said the arrangement was a "campus decision" and that he had "no involvement" in the negotiations. He said he supports the outcome.
"I commend Chancellor Steinmetz and Athletic Director Yurachek for working out the agreement and finding what I think is the middle ground in order to allow a great Arkansas tradition to be continued," Waldrip said.
"I also commend the governor for making the resources available to perform the required upgrades. It's only through that commitment that playing in Little Rock could be possible."
Hutchinson, in a prepared news release, praised the UA for "working with the state for a plan that benefits everyone," saying it "gives more people the opportunity to experience the excitement of the Razorback traditions."
"War Memorial evokes a sense of nostalgia, and many families have great memories of the games they attended there," Hutchinson said. "And for some fans, these games in Little Rock are their only opportunity to see the Hogs play in person, and maybe their only chance to attend a big-time SEC football game."
Hutchinson's statement did not address how the stadium upgrades would be funded.
The Razorbacks' three-game commitment means a common opponent will visit Little Rock every other Thanksgiving, echoing a 17-year scheduling run in which rival Louisiana State University played in the capital every other November from 1994-2010.
It also ensures games against a competitive opponent from a neighboring state, a potential rival, after the number and quality of games UA committed to playing in Little Rock diminished over the years.
It gives Fayetteville a slate of seven games -- in even-numbered years -- for the first time, Yurachek said.
Conversely, the deal means two of the Razorback's "home" conference games will be played away from Razorback Stadium, which is undergoing a $160 million expansion and renovation that is partly financed by a $115 million bond package.
The arrangement won't harm the value of a season ticket, Yurachek said, pointing out in part that high-quality nonconference foes will visit in 2019 (Colorado State) and 2021 (Texas). UA is working to secure a top-tier opponent in 2023, he said.
"What I hope is regardless of whether it's an SEC game or nonconference game -- and I understand the difference -- but you're also buying a season ticket to come support the Arkansas Razorbacks, first and foremost, and they will always be participating in those games," Yurachek said.
Information for this article was contributed by Tom Murphy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Matt Jones of WholeHogSports.
A Section on 05/18/2018
Joe Steinmetz (from left), chancellor of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, UA Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek and Kane Webb, director of the Arkansas Parks and Tourism Department, take part in Thursday’s news conference at War Memorial Stadium.