COMMENTARY: Labeling latest UA building project a stadium expansion is a bit of a misnomer

An artist’s rendering shows what a partially enclosed north end zone might look like at Razorback Stadium.

UA Athletics

The University of Arkansas Board of Trustees approved a $160 million building project in the north end zone of Razorback Stadium last Thursday by an 8-2 vote.

Did anyone really doubt it would pass?

Sure, former U.S. Senator and Arkansas governor David Pryor rattled his saber as a trustee, giving an impassioned plea for the board and the athletics department to cool their jets on the bond issue, and he even asked for education to be put first.

Every point Pryor made in his dissent, issued the day before the vote, was salient and on target, but also radically idealistic, and if he truly thought his dissent would halt the project, naive. Pryor might remain idealistic, but he’s not naive. He remains an excellent politician.

The board voted to back the procurement of $120 million in bonds to fund the bulk of the project because it has every reason to believe that the athletic department will be able to fund payments on the bonds through revenue and donations, and not public money.

While Pryor is right that the state would benefit down the road if $120 million in bonds were procured to help support UA academics at a greater level, he also knows that it’s highly unlikely the UA could produce the revenue or garner the donations academically that it would take to service the annual bond debt that is estimated to be $8 to $9 million a year for two decades.

Unfortunately neither ESPN nor any other network is willing to pay millions of dollars to televise English 1003 or Art Lecture.

Pryor and others pointing out that our priorities are askew is on the mark, too, but Arkansans need their bread and circuses like everyone else, right?

I respect Pryor using the news coverage surrounding the building project to shine a light on the needs of higher education in our state. Every secondary and elementary school in Arkansas could use more help, too, even the wealthy districts in the northwest portion of the state. Maybe his thoughts will spark a useful debate, and possibly new and fruitful ideas will be generated if the discussion has legs.

You may notice I’ve not been calling the building project a stadium expansion because that’s not really what it is.

Yes, the north end zone will be enclosed and 3,000 or so high-dollar seats will be added, but what the building project actually is, is the construction of a new athletics administration building that will also include an improved game-day locker room situation for the football team and other amenities for fans like elevators.

Despite a few upgrades and renovations over the years, the 40-plus year-old Broyles Center is out of date and not up to SEC standards. It has been out of date in some ways since the Razorbacks joined the SEC in 1992.

Major improvements have been put on the back burner for that long. Other improvements — Walton Arena, Baum Stadium, and the Tyson Center among others — were deemed more critical first.

The entire athletics department will benefit to varying degrees because of the athletic administration offices. No doubt it will be a showplace that every program will use when recruiting athletes.

I only make this point because one of the key criticisms of the building project is that an additional 3,000 seats in the stadium isn’t worth the expense, particularly when season-ticket sellouts haven’t been achieved in quite some time. If the project were just about 3,000 seats, that criticism would be valid.

While the additional seats are key because they will create additional income to help float the bonds, they are just one part of the multi-faceted project.

Yes, the project is part of an athletics arms race being waged in the SEC, and no it doesn’t guarantee a wave of five-star athletes will descend upon the program or even one win on the football field, but it is needed for the Razorbacks to try and keep pace in the most successful and prestigious football conference in the nation.

I put the emphasis on football in the last paragraph because it is the primary revenue source that supports all the rest of the programs except for men’s basketball. Baseball might produce some revenue for the UA, but if it breaks even that would be an exception to the rule in college athletics.

Again, Americans’ appetite for athletics as well as our consumption and spending patterns and priorities are way out of whack. That is without question. However, if it is important for the Razorbacks to attempt to be a source of pride for this state, then its latest construction effort is the cost of doing business in the SEC.