*****UPDATE***** The Board voted in favor of the renovation 8-2 Thursday morning. It's a go.
Thursday morning, the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees will vote and is expected to approve plans to, mostly, expand the north end zone of Razorback Stadium and rebuild the Broyles Center.
Most of the Board has already expressed support. Former Governor David Pryor until recently has been the lone voice of opposition, but Wednesday morning, five former members of the Board wrote an op-ed published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and other publications. Most of the reader comments on that post support the opposition. In an unscientific Arkansas Business poll with, as of this writing, 207 votes cast, 74% think UA should not move forward with the expansion plans.
I understand the concern with a project this large, however, the points raised in the op-ed mostly miss the point. They make arguments about the frequency of sell outs, academic facilities and faculty salaries, the number of new seats for the cost, the cost rising above current estimates, and more. Some of those issues are valid, but others are mostly political distractions from the real issue.
Here’s the problem people really have with the expansion. It's gross. We’re talking about a $160 million expansion to provide approximately 4,800 new luxury seats for the stadium. A stadium that’s used fewer than 10 times per year. It’s gluttonous. It’s disgusting, really. It’s major college football in 2016.
UA is planning on financing the debt through money generated from sales of those luxury seats and suites, as well as a price hike to lower-level bleacher seats for SEC games to the tune of $30 more per ticket this year than a year ago. There will be no tax increases like we see for pro stadiums. There will be no additional fees for the students.
However, that won’t stop many people from seeing “$160 million for football,” mostly for the wealthier fans who can afford the luxury seats. It’s a distasteful perception, no doubt. Would society be better served by spending $160 million on something like education or medical research? Of course. But it’s not as if this money would be going to those things if not for this stadium expansion. It’s not a big pool of public money the government or the UA administration is trying to figure out how to spend.
Full disclosure: my wife is a PhD candidate at UA with hopes of being a professor. It’s very much in my interest for professors to be paid as much as possible. I’m all for it. If this expansion doesn't happen, will professors suddenly get big raises? No. Buildings won’t be built from it. My beloved arts programs won’t get a big influx of cash.
We've been told for many years that despite however rarely Arkansas sells out a football game, there has been a long waiting list for club seats and suites from people willing to pay for them. This expansion is to accommodate those wishes. There are people waiting to give Razorback athletics a ton of money, and the department is building this so they can happily collect it. They’re not attempting to build new bleachers in the upper decks. Those are the seats that are regularly empty. There is evidence the seats they’re attempting to build will be filled.
Also, and this is less important but still an issue, Razorback Stadium is now one of only three SEC home stadium that isn't essentially bowled in with seats. The other two are Missouri and Vanderbilt, both of which have grassy hills and in Missouri’s case, features their famous Block M and allows students to sit on the hillside during games. Arkansas’ Broyles Complex is the ugliest end zone backdrop in the SEC. It's an eyesore. The coaches surely expect the big renovation will help recruiting.
Those previous two paragraphs are the only reasons to do it. It’s a pretty simple situation.
Is it right to raise ticket prices more than 50% for fans in order to pay for a part of the expansion they largely won’t be using, if at all? That’s debatable. It can be justified just as much as someone is justified for dropping their tickets due to the rising cost.
If there were going to be added fees to the general student population or tax increases on the public, I would absolutely be strongly against this proposal.
There is a risk that somehow Arkansas might not be able to raise the money through ticket sales necessary to pay off the bond debt, but it seems like a long shot. Razorback athletics making money seems like as sure-fire a bet as you can make in this state. With ever-increasing money coming in from the league office every year due mostly to the insane profitability from the league’s TV deals, it’s simply pretty hard to imagine them defaulting.
In short, this expansion doesn’t need to happen. This much money can be much better served in other parts of society. If anybody wants to criticize this much money being used for a luxury area of a football stadium, that’s fine, but it's political spin to insinuate that this money would otherwise be spent on the academic side of the university (similarly, the op-ed also incorrectly references 3,000 new seats when the UA has repeatedly said 4,800, and lazily offers a random number of sell outs). The athletic department actually gives money back to the academic side of the university. The more they make, the more they can give back.
I hate it when people have a perfectly good case to make but sour it with bad arguments. If anyone opposes the expansion on the grounds that it’s simply nauseating to spend that much money on football, I’m sympathetic to that. But don’t muddy the talking points by describing upper deck bleachers struggling to be filled or professors being underpaid. Those are different issues. And if the Board wants to address faculty benefits, it seems they could do that whenever they wanted, regardless of football.
If anyone wants to get really upset with Razorback Foundation spending, be upset that they paid Frank Broyles $3.5 million last year for “speaking engagements.” That’s right, 91-year-old Broyles was the second-highest paid Razorback last year, following only Bret Bielema. Now that’s a waste of money.