Enclosing north end zone at Razorback Stadium right move

An artist’s rendering of what an expanded north end zone might look like.

Courtesy, UA Athletics

If you were wondering how the Razorback athletics program would use its portion of the $527 million of revenue that the Southeastern Conference generated last year, the University of Arkansas gave you a good clue Monday afternoon.

The UA announced in a news release that it would seek approval from its Board of Trustees this week to pursue an estimated $160-million project to renovate the north end zone of Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

I chuckled when I read the word “seek” in the release. If the UA didn’t know what the answer would be going into the meeting, it certainly wouldn’t have publicized the meeting two days ahead of time.

The idea of enclosing the north end zone isn’t new, and it certainly dates back further than 2009 when the athletics department hired consultants to develop a master plan.

Who knows when Frank Broyles first dreamed of a bowled stadium on campus? Probably as far back as those late-night drives home from Little Rock after coaching the Razorbacks in bowled confines of War Memorial Stadium during his coaching tenure from 1958-76.

It surely crossed Broyles’ mind as Arkansas’ athletics director in the mid-1980s when the upper deck and new press box were added to the west side of the stadium to increase the stadium’s seating capacity from 40,000 to 51,000 seats. But the need and money just weren’t there at that point.

No doubt, it was looked into in 1999 when plans for the most recent addition to Razorback Stadium were first generated. Broyles had renderings of an enclosed north end zone in his office. However, the time and money weren’t right.

The $110-million renovation project that was right and completed in 2001 decked the east side of the stadium, added luxury boxes and enclosed the south end zone. It increased the size of the stadium to its current capacity of 72,000 seats and was a giant step to creating a bowled stadium.

It appears now is the right time to begin finishing the job by bowling the lower tier of the stadium. It’s a credit to Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long that he is moving decisively when money and will appear to be meeting hand in hand.

Paying for such an expansion will require a bond, gifts from generous benefactors and further corporate sponsorship, but it wouldn’t be possible without the infusion of additional money from the overall success of the SEC and the very specific success of the SEC Network.

Courtesy, UA Athletics

Arkansas will receive a 15th share of the SEC revenue or around $35.1 million this year. That’s about $15 million more than just two years ago before the league and ESPN joined to create the SEC Network.

Every school in the SEC is enjoying the same increase and not coincidentally, every program is making improvements of some sort. Yes, the rich get richer, but the middle-of-the-road schools are now allowed to make key improvements that will benefit coaches, players and fans that were unaffordable before.

Why is the time right for renovation? It’s striking while the iron is hot. While the SEC Network has been wildly successful, who knows how long it will last? ESPN itself is going through a difficult patch as other options besides cable and satellite become available to consumers who look for their entertainment from different sources than the Worldwide Leader in Sports. Every time a person drops cable or satellite TV, ESPN loses money.

I’m not wringing any sort of alarm for Disney-owned ESPN, but revenue doesn’t always go up or remain stable. While things are good, the time is right for Arkansas to make improvements.

According to the release, the project is only adding 3,000 additional seats to raise capacity for the stadium to 75,000. At first thought, that may seem to be very few seats for such an expensive expansion.

It is, but the program needs the amenities provided by the renovation more than it needs a multitude of additional seats. Arkansas doesn’t sell out Razorback Stadium now; so adding 10,000 more seats wouldn’t be prudent.

Adding 3,000 prime, in-demand seats, whether they are outdoor chair-back seats or enclosed in a luxury box, is a solid business move.

Enclosing the north end zone should provide a competitive advantage on the field as well. We can only guess how much noise the enclosure will capture, but there is no doubt opposing teams have more difficulty driving into and out of end zones filled with rowdy fans.

The renovation and expansion will be a strong selling point for Bielema and his staff in recruiting, where every little improvement helps build a case why Arkansas is the right place for the recruit. Don’t think it’s a coincidence that Arkansas released information about the project a little more than a week before national signing day.

The time and money seems right. Hopefully the project will only increase the momentum Bielema, his staff and most importantly his players have been building on the field.

Many have speculated how long the Razorbacks would continue to play a game each season at War Memorial Stadium. The 2001 renovation and expansion of Razorback Stadium is what sparked the stadium debate that resulted in more and more games moving to campus. Could this expansion end up being the final shoe to drop for Razorback football games in Little Rock? Just speculation.