LITTLE ROCK War Memorial Stadium will continue to host two Arkansas Razorbacks football games through 2016, an extension of two years from the current contract that will allow the stadium to continue with an improvements plan, officials announced Friday.
The stadium's commission and the university agreed to drop an obligation that the Razorbacks play three games in Little Rock in two seasons over the coming six years. Other terms of the original contract remain in force, including a provision that the Razorbacks play at least one Southeastern Conference game each year in Little Rock.
The balance of games shifted to Razorback Stadium after a bitter debate in 2000 that divided much of the fan base. The extension may not quiet the lingering discussion.
Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long said he knew the first question he'd get would be about Little Rock games in 2017.
"That's for future years and future discussions," said Long, who made no commitment for the Razorbacks to play at War Memorial after the contract expires.
"I do think it's a commitment that makes sense and is important to both parties," Long said. "We understand the importance of every Razorbacks fan across this state."
War Memorial Stadium Commission chairman Gary Smith said the panel can only get bond funding through years in which the Razorbacks are under contract, no matter how many other events the stadium books. He said the stadium can now proceed with a plan to tear down the press box and rebuild a modern, expanded version.
Long mentioned that the stadium also is planning to add some club seats, something Smith then acknowledged.
Smith said he and Long met in July and that the contract discussions went quickly and smoothly.
"There were no offers and counter offers," Smith said.
In 2000, the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees agreed to a contract with War Memorial that kept the Razorbacks in Little Rock through 2014. The team was to play three Little Rock games in four seasons and two games in the other 11 seasons.
The move came after the geography of the state changed.
When Interstate 540 opened in 1999 it provided a faster route for fans in central Arkansas to travel to Fayetteville for Razorback games. The expansion of Razorback Stadium from about 50,000 seats to 76,000 followed, and then-athletic director Frank Broyles said he needed more games in Fayetteville to fund the expansion. For a time, Broyles advocated moving the entire home slate to Fayetteville.
Central Arkansas fans, including financier Warren Stephens, stridently opposed the effort to move games. Stephens argued that playing five games in Fayetteville and two in Little Rock would lead to all Razorback home games being played on the Fayetteville campus.
Since 1948, the Razorbacks have divided games between Fayetteville and War Memorial. Prior to the new contract in 2000, the games were split 4-3 in favor of Little Rock on 21 occasions and 4-3 in favor of Fayetteville four times. In the other years, there were six home games, evenly divided between the cities.
Arkansas has played LSU every other season in Little Rock, with Mississippi State serving as the other Southeastern Conference opponent in recent years. This season in Little Rock, Arkansas plays Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 6 and LSU on Nov. 28, which is the customary day-after-Thanksgiving date for that matchup.
Long said he had no plans to move the LSU game to Fayetteville but said he evaluates the schedule every year.
Next season, the Razorbacks begin a 10-year contract with Texas A&M to play an annual neutral-site game at the new Dallas Cowboys stadium. That will remove a non-conference home date from the Razorbacks' schedule, something Long said factored in to the contract extension with War Memorial.
"As far as I'm concerned, the great stadium debate is concluded," Smith said.
Prior to an afternoon news conference, the War Memorial Stadium Commission conducted a brief meeting, in which it approved the contract extension. Smith later presented Long with the document so he could sign and make it official.
"There's no need to read the fine print," said Smith, a banker, drawing a few laughs.