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Fans or No Fans, Colleges Prepare to Play BallLock Icon

6 min read
Reynolds Razorback Stadium football 131460
Hunter Yurachek, director of athletics at the University of Arkansas, wants conditions to be safe enough for Razorback fans to come back and feel confident. ()

Will Arkansans be able to call the Hogs again this fall?

That is a pressing question for many of the state’s sports fans, who have had to go without their Razorbacks (or Red Wolves, Wonder Boys, etc.) since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of spring sports in March. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has allowed venues such as restaurants and casinos to reopen in recent weeks with capacity restrictions, so as May trundles to its end all indications point to colleges and universities having their student-athletes competing.

Whether they’ll be performing in empty stadiums remains unknown.

Hunter Yurachek, the director of athletics for the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, said he expects the Razorbacks to have a full slate of sports in the fall, which would include football, women’s volleyball and soccer and cross-country for the men and women. The athletic department submitted a fiscal year budget for the 2020-21 sports year of $124.5 million, just off the budgets for the previous two years.

Yurachek said the university’s student-athletes are expected to be allowed to return to campus this summer, although an exact reporting date hasn’t been determined. Officials at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro said its football players are scheduled to return to campus June 1.

Arkansas’ football team, under first-year coach Sam Pittman, is scheduled to kick off its season against Nevada on Sept. 5 at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Arkansas State opens the same day on the road against Memphis University.

For Yurachek, the return to athletic normalcy is based on confidence. The university’s plans are designed to ensure the safety and health of three groups: the players, university personnel and the fans.

“I call it creating plans for confidence; we have to create confidence,” Yurachek said. “We know we can not eliminate the risk of COVID-19, but we want to minimize that risk.”

That’s the Ticket

The UA athletic department budgeted $36 million in revenue from ticket sales, the great majority of which comes from football, men’s basketball and baseball.

The baseball team, a regular contender for the College World Series under coach Dave Van Horn, routinely fills 10,000-plus seats at Baum Stadium. The football team has seen its attendance drop during the slump of the past few years, but Yurachek said it had a 92% renewal of season-ticket sales for the coming season.

For a university such as Arkansas or Arkansas State, football attendance is a major source of revenue for the entire athletic department. It is even more prominent at UA, which receives revenue distribution from its membership in the SEC.

Arkansas State, a member of the less affluent Sun Belt Conference, has a department budget of about $35 million in 2020-21, said Athletic Director Terry Mohajir. About 20% of that revenue is expected to come from ticket sales, he said.

“Obviously we have to be able to play the events to generate the revenue to support the program,” said Clayton Hamilton, the UA’s athletic department CFO. “That’s the starting point. We need our athletic events to happen to sell the tickets and the sponsorships to generate the revenue.”

Hamilton said the university had a strong financial foundation when the pandemic shut down sports in March, so it was able to weather the short-term disruption in revenue without any worry about cutting sports or other cutbacks. That’s a luxury most universities in Arkansas don’t have; Mohajir said Arkansas State is still focusing on this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

“We were very concerned and we still are about finishing this fiscal year out,” Mohajir said. “We are taking measures. A lot of our budget is cyclical so the dollars we are generating now … you can’t spend because you don’t know about the football season yet. You can’t spend money that might not be there in the fall.”

Yurachek said his university needs fans, obviously, but its “plan of confidence” is designed to make sure the game experience is as safe as possible.

“We have a seven-game home schedule, so it is very important to the overall health of our department that we have sports with fans in the stands that are purchasing tickets and concessions and merchandise,” Yurachek said.

Hunter Yurachek Razorbacks 131460
<p>“I call it creating plans for confidence; we have to create confidence. We know we can not eliminate the risk of COVID-19, but we want to minimize that risk.” – Hunter Yurachek, director of athletics at the University of Arkansas</p> ( Walt Beazley/University of Arkansas)

Conditional Plans

There are a lot of moving parts to reopening college sports and the fact that any games played won’t be restricted to Arkansas contributes to the uncertainty. Other states may have different circumstances or infection rates. Mohajir said that even if every football or volleyball player is tested for the virus, that won’t necessarily assure they’re safe because those players may interact with others on and off campus who may not have been tested.

Razorback Stadium has a seating capacity of 76,000, and even if it’s only half-filled, that’s a lot of bodies potentially open to infection or carrying the virus, and some of those fans may come from states touched more heavily than Arkansas.

Mohajir said he recently saw a photo of a Georgia Tech football game from 1918 during the Spanish flu epidemic in which fans were wearing masks. Yurachek said he wonders how players can be safe on the field if fans in the stands are not.

“If we can’t determine a way to make our venue safe enough to have people in the stands, someone is really going to have to sell me on the idea on how we make it safe for those student-athletes who are separated by 1 foot on a line of scrimmage where they are sweating, spitting and bleeding on each other,” Yurachek said. “It’s not that I’m not a fan of playing games without fans in the stands; it’s that someone has to sell me that if it’s not safe for our fans, how is it safe for the young men and women on the field?”

Terry Mohajir Arkansas State 131460
"There’s a possibility you couldn’t have people in the stands but you have good enough testing to have games. You never know.” – Terry Mohajir, athletic director at Arkansas State University ()

Mohajir said he is optimistic but no one really knows what the circumstances are going to be in September and beyond. He pointed out that the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention recently said that the virus doesn’t spread as readily as first believed from touching infected surfaces.

“No one really knows anything right now. I can tell you and make up something, but all I can say is I’m very optimistic about everything returning to normal in the fall,” Mohajir said. “You have to evaluate it where we are, what’s the current condition of our area we live in. There’s a possibility you couldn’t have people in the stands but you have good enough testing to have games. You never know.

“What’s going to happen in September? I don’t know what the current conditions are going to be. We are going to make decisions on the current conditions.”

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