By Levi Gilbert

Football is recession proof, or at least as close as it gets. It was a tough time, economically speaking, for the United States in 2008, but football continued to grow in the 501 despite the hard times. Just ask University of Central Arkansas Athletic Director Brad Teague.

“The economy didn’t really affect us at all,” Teague said. “We have been providing good, consistent entertainment since we made the move to Division I and we’ve had our biggest crowds ever the last two years.”
The UCA Bears saw continued growth in fan attendance and community support in 2008. UCA had an increase of $156,000 in ticket sales from 2007 to 2008. That may not sound like much considering the Bears had two more home games in 2008, but there was a 5.4 percent increase in ticket sales per game. The Bears made an average of $3,715 more per game in tickets sales in 2008 than the previous year.
Selling football is no different than selling a new movie to the viewing public. The bottom line is that the audience wants an entertaining, high-quality product.
“We aim to create more than just a game atmosphere,” Teague said. “We want our fans to think, ‘Hey, it was fun,’ whether we win or lose. We aim to be good, wholesome entertainment for our fans.”
There are several reasons why football has continued to grow in the 501, and in the case of UCA, winning is certainly one of the reasons. The Bears are 16-7 since moving to Division I, competing at the highest level in the Southland Conference both years. If not for an NCAA bylaw, the Bears would have been Southland champions in 2008 with the conference’s best record of 6-1.
“It’s helped that we’ve won. There’s no doubt about it,” Teague said. “But we’ve been doing it the right way. We’ve been consistent with the type of coaches and students that we bring into UCA. They are all quality people.”
As with everything the past year, it all comes down to money. Entertainment is one luxury that many families in Arkansas have had to reduce or do without as paychecks began to spread thin with price increases in food and gas during the summer. Football is a cheap form of entertainment, especially on the high school level.
“A ticket is just five bucks. It’s a pretty good deal,” Sylvan Hills football coach Jim Withrow said.
It is a good deal. Picture this scenario: It’s a Friday night in September. A Sylvan Hills graduate is thinking about taking his girlfriend out on a date. They could go to the movies, but the mental cash register quickly begins to add up two tickets ($20), two drinks, a medium popcorn and some candy (another $20) and not to mention a few goes on the Pac-Man machine in the arcade room. Ouch.
Or, he could take his date to see his alma mater and younger brother play in a high school football game. A date to a high school football game costs almost half of what it would cost to go to the movies.
Just imagine if it was a family of four!
UCA Coach Clint Conque uses a similar logic.
“When you start talking about what it takes to take a family of four out to dinner and a movie, to come to a UCA football game, buy a ticket, popcorn and a drink, it’s still reasonably priced,” Conque said in an interview for KUCA 91.3 FM in August. “That’s my marketing side coming out in me.”
Whether it is money or winning, in the end, the growth of football programs in the 501 depends on the communities that support them. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two. The communities receive a common element in the football programs; the fans come together with a common goal of supporting their team. The programs get community support, both in tangible (financial support through ticket sales) and intangible measures (a twelfth man on the field).
The money for the Sylvan Hills athletic budget each year comes directly from the Sherwood community.
“We don’t have a set budget each year, but the money we do spend for uniforms and equipment each year comes from the money we make from selling tickets and money we receive through our booster club,” said Coach Withrow. “We always have good support from the community, and we need that support.”
It’s the same at UCA. “At our level, we’re not self-supportive,” Teague said. “You just can’t do it on your own. You have to have support from the campus and the local community. Our campus, the Conway community and the 501 community as a whole have supported us tremendously.”
Football has always been a staple in the South and in the 501, and the future is bright. In 2008, Quitman fielded its first varsity team, Conway Christian fielded its first AAA team, Riverview fielded its first senior high team and Little Rock Lutheran fielded its first team in five years.
In a year of economic uncertainty and decline, it was good to see some growth in football.