It’s often said the Arkansas Razorbacks represent the state’s only major pro sports franchise. They are, no doubt, the state’s most influential sports entity, which means any major news involving the Razorbacks is de facto big news for the state’s sports landscape. In these parts, there is no escaping the shadow of The Tusk.
This explains the Razorback bent for our list of the top Arkansas sports stories of 2015. Of course other entities do significant things, too (we see you, record-setting Arkansas State Red Wolves football). But the number of Arkansans who deeply care just isn’t anywhere as large.
1. Jeff Long Succeeds as Face of the Inaugural College Football Playoffs
Arkansas’ athletic director has dealt with plenty of in-state controversy in his eight years on the job. Fortunately for him, he hasn’t had to steer out of any messes these last couple years in his other job: committee chairman of the all-important College Football Playoffs. In January, Long successfully supervised the completion of the CFP’s inaugural edition, which set records for the three-most viewed events in the history of cable television.
The committee selects the nation’s top four teams for the three-game event. So far, both last season and this season, those top four teams have turned out to be clear cut. The fact no No. 5 team’s fan base is railing against the committee’s final choices is a good thing for Long. He benefits from the significant national exposure his position grants him without the potential downside of a major controversy.
Long’s position accrues significant soft power from the additional fame and contacts he’s made with numerous college sports bigwigs. This should ultimately help the Razorbacks, too.
2. Razorbacks Achieve SEC Superstardom
In 23 years of SEC membership, the Razorback men’s baseball and basketball programs had produced a total of one SEC Player of the Year award between them. Then, in the span of nine weeks, they produced two.
In March, sophomore forward Bobby Portis took the award in basketball. Portis averaged 15 points and eight rebounds a game while leading Arkansas to its best season since the late 1990s. His Hogs lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
In May, redshirt sophomore Andrew Benintendi won the award in baseball. In the regular season, the outfielder led the SEC in batting average (.415), home runs (17), on base percentage (.511) and total bases (145) while leading the country with a .771 slugging percentage. His Hogs made it to the College World Series before losing to eventual national champion Virginia.
While both Portis and Benintendi decided to go pro after their seasons, their success has and will continue to pay dividends in recruiting.
3. Lil’ Ole Toledo KO’s Arkansas
Heading into this season, some national media considered this Razorback football team a dark horse contender for the College Football Playoff. A few lucky bounces here, a road upset of Alabama there, the thinking went, and third-year coach Bret Bielema’s crew could break through in a major way.
Those hopes went down the drain in the second game when the No. 18 Hogs fell 12-16 to unranked Toledo at home. The upset was the first in a three-game losing streak for the Hogs and is the most significant setback of the Hogs’ season. It was small consolation that mid-major Toledo, which was missing its star running back against Arkansas, ultimately proved to be a Top 25 caliber team itself.
Since that low point in Little Rock, previously injured Hogs have healed and helped the team surge to finish the regular season with a 7-5 record and Liberty Bowl berth against Kansas State.
At $1.4 million, this bowl’s payout is the second-lowest among the eight non-CFB bowl games that SEC schools will play in this year. Had the Hogs not lost to Toledo and won more games, the SEC would have likely chosen them for a bowl berth paying at least $1.3 million more.
4. War Memorial Stadium Appeals to Younger Generations Through Soccer
In the last couple decades, much debate has centered on the future of Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium as the Razorbacks have downshifted the number of football games they annually play there from three or four to one. Nowadays, even that one game hardly draws a full crowd (the Toledo game drew less than 50,000). With big-time football on the wane at War Memorial Stadium, how will this one-time civic jewel stay relevant?
Since the 1990s, the game’s popularity has been on an undeniably upward curve in most every conceivable metric. While soccer mania hasn’t quite hit Arkansas like the nearby Dallas-Fort Worth and Kansas City markets (which have pro teams), it does have strong growth potential here thanks to the game’s surging popularity among under 34-year-olds and its strong appeal to the state’s growing Hispanic population. No, the market isn’t yet ready to support a men’s minor league pro team, but it may be ready to support the next best thing.
In October, War Memorial Stadium announced it will be home to a new men’s soccer club that will begin play in 2016 in the National Premier Soccer League. The club will be made of college players, drawn from all over the nation, who will represent the most talented soccer team ever based in state. The start of the Little Rock Rangers Soccer Club is an important chapter in the Arkansan history of the world’s biggest game.
5. Malik Monk Spurns Arkansas, Signs with Kentucky
For the last few years, no homegrown talent has dominated recruiting talk like Bentonville High senior Malik Monk. The 6’4” Monk, arguably the best high school basketball player in state history, combines a highly developed skill set with athleticism on par with pro superstars like Russell Westbrook. He has “NBA star” written all over him.
Razorback basketball coaches badly wanted him, going so far as to take essentially their entire team to two of Monk’s high school games last season. Unfortunately for Arkansas, though, Monk signed with Kentucky in November. He heads to a program which sells itself to big-time recruits on the ability to turn the phrase “‘NBA star’ written all over him’” into “actual NBA star.”
The Razorbacks still landed a very good signing class, but Monk’s loss extends beyond the court. He has a good shot at becoming college basketball’s most exciting player next year, and his presence as a Razorback could have packed Bud Walton Arena’s nearly 20,000 seats for every home game. That would provide significantly more revenue — in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars per game — for a program that is currently pulling 4,000 to 6,000 people, tops, for non-conference games so far this season.
Although Monk projects to stay in college only a season before bolting to the pros, his Razorback affiliation there could have still paid major dividends for the program down the line. NBA stars, especially ultra-popular ones as Monk has the potential to be, draw elite recruits to their alma maters.
There is more direct potential monetary gain, too. Russell Westbrook, for instance, recently donated an undisclosed sum to the athletic department of his alma mater University of California, Los Angeles. The amount was so high that the Bruins, home to basketball dignitaries like John Wooden, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton, will name their home court in his honor.
Expect any future collegiate “Malik Monk Court” to be in Lexington, Kentucky, not Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Evin Demirel holds court on all things Arkansas sports-related at his website BestOfArkansasSports.com. He also writes for the likes of Whole Hog Sports, Arkansas Times and OnlyInArk.com.
Main photo courtesy of Razorback Communications.