With Eye on Athletics Revenue, UA Little Rock Switches Conference


The University of Arkansas at Little Rock is moving from the Sun Belt Conference to the Ohio Valley Conference, where the school plans to increase athletics department revenue, reinvest money saved on team travel expenses and immediately compete for championships.

The University of Arkansas System's Board of Trustees approved the move during a special meeting Wednesday afternoon. UA Little Rock will begin competing in the conference July 1.

Thirteen of the school's 15 programs will make the transition. The men's wrestling team will continue competing in the Pac-12 and the women's swimming team will remain in the Missouri Valley Conference. 

UA Little Rock Athletics Director George Lee told board members that the Sun Belt is "not the same conference" the school joined in 1991 that relied on women's basketball for revenue. In that era, the conference was home to lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) programs. But its focus on football has grown substantially since it started adding upper-tier Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) programs in the early aughts.

UA Little Rock last fielded a football team in 1955 and decided in 2019, after conducting a feasibility study, that the program wouldn't return any time soon. The University of Texas at Arlington is the only other non-football member of the conference. 

"Since we don't have football and we don't have any plans to start football, we're kind of being left behind," Lee said.

Not only was the school being left behind, it was traveling too far to compete. The Sun Belt spans seven states, including Arkansas, from central Texas to the Atlantic Coast. A one-way trip to play against Coastal Carolina, which requires travel by plane and bus, lasts about 14 hours, according to Lee. And it's not cheap – it cost nearly $30,000 to get the women's volleyball team there and back for a recent match. 

Trips to Georgia Southern and Appalachian State also require more time and money than UA Little Rock now wants to give, Lee said. 

In the Ohio Valley Conference, where members are in a more concentrated area spanning Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky and Illinois, only one school is more than six hours one-way from UA Little Rock. Lee said that extra time will allow athletes to recover between games and focus more on their studies.

He did not mention exactly how much money the school expects to save on travel expenses.

Lee believes the proximity will also help build regional rivalries, excite fans and drive attendance, particularly for the men's basketball program and the 5,600-seat Jack Stephens Center on campus. The Ohio Valley Conference's focus on basketball aligns with UA Little Rock's, and Lee expects the men's and women's teams to immediately compete for titles. The budget for the men's team, coached by former Razorback and NBA star Darrell Walker, is the second-highest in the conference. The budget for the women's team is the highest. 

Lee did not provide expected revenue figures during the meeting, which lasted less than 30 minutes. He told board members that he expects little change to the bottom line at first, followed by improvement.

A university spokesperson forwarded a request for more information to the athletics department, which did not immediately respond. 

The move comes amid widespread conference realignment triggered by Texas and Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 for the SEC. In the Ohio Valley Conference, Austin Peay University in Tennessee is leaving for the Atlantic Sun Conference. Belmont University, also in Tennessee, is leaving for the Missouri Valley Conference. 

UA Little Rock will be the ninth member of the Ohio Valley. The Trojans chose the conference over the Summit League and Missouri Valley, Ohio Valley and Southland conferences.

The school is holding a news conference at 3 p.m. Thursday to officially announce the move.

"We felt this was a good time to assess our program and our positions and to consider our options," Chancellor Christina Drale said. "We believe that this transition from the Sun Belt to the Ohio Valley Conference represents an opportunity to find a best-fit set of circumstances for us and also an opportunity to reinvest our resources – more of our resources – into our student-athletes."

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Ohio Valley includes a school in Indiana.