It is time to stop letting financial gain come before the prosperity of the Texas A&M football program.
A combined 57,992 A&M and Arkansas fans piled into AT&T Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 25, for this year’s Southwest Classic. For some Southeastern Conference teams, that would be a record-breaking number, cause for university-wide celebration.
But neither the Aggies nor Razorbacks are “some team.” AT&T Stadium, with a maximum capacity considerably lower than that of A&M’s Kyle Field, felt empty in the Southwest Classic. Nearly the entire third deck was untenanted, and the crowd occupying the stadium’s standing room was essentially nonexistent.
So, why do the two teams play at a neutral site every year instead of alternating hosting obligations between College Station and Fayetteville?
As with most other decisions made regarding collegiate athletics, the answer has nothing to do with athlete performance or scheduling fairness. Instead, the neutral site agreement was decided by one driving force: money. The two universities signed a 10-year contract in 2014 necessitating the yearly rivalry matchup be held at Jerry World, and though the official numbers were never made public, it is expected that both schools received great profit cuts as part of the deal.
While few can argue that increased funding for A&M’s athletics department is a bad thing, the situation raises an important question: At what point do the negative implications outweigh the financial gains?
The attendance at this year’s Southwest Classic failed to even hit 60,000, just over half of A&M’s all-time attendance record set in 2014. Arkansas also consistently tops this number, having already competed in a sold-out Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium earlier this year against then-No. 15 Texas. At the very least, this means hosting the yearly matchup in Arlington leads to fewer Aggies and Razorbacks supporting their teams in-person. This does nothing but hurt athlete performance.
In addition to the diminishing of fan support, holding the rivalry game at a neutral site also essentially screws over one of the teams in its scheduling advantages. Both teams face eight SEC teams per season, typically splitting the schedule evenly between home and away matchups. But A&M and Arkansas facing each other at Jerry World results in one team playing one more away game and one less home game than the other. This year, A&M will play four home games against SEC opponents while Arkansas will only host conference foes three times. The roles will be reversed next year.
There is no debating the importance of a home field advantage in collegiate athletics. When considering BCS teams — and Notre Dame, who insists on remaining independent, much to the chagrin of college football fans nationwide — home teams carry a distinct edge, claiming 62.8 percent of wins across 10 years. Fleecing one team out of a crucial homestand puts that program at a distinct disadvantage against other SEC teams. For a university with one of the best student sections in the nation, often cited for its influence on games held at Kyle Field, this compromise feels like a waste.
Still not convinced the neutral site matchup is a bad deal? A&M’s administration isn’t entirely on board itself, with Director of Athletics Ross Bjork saying he hasn’t been happy with traveling to Arlington. Whether or not the series will shift toward a home-home format lies in the hands of Arkansas’ decision makers, he said.
“Arkansas still has some work to do, but our plan is to move that game back to campus after the 24 contract is expired,” Bjork said. “We think this game deserves to be on campus. It’s an SEC game — we need to play as many of those games on our campus as possible.”
Between lowered attendance, scheduling inequalities and a general lack of support from higher-ups at A&M, the detriments surrounding hosting the Southwest Classic at a neutral site far overshadow the positives.
If the two universities truly value the success of their athletes and the longevity of their football programs, they will not extend their contract with the Jones family when it expires in 2024.
Gig ‘Em Ags, Woo Pig Sooie and hasta la vista, AT&T Stadium.