Too Many Cupcakes?

FAYETTEVILLE -- They hit the phones. They sent letters. They even tried repeated e-mails.

But nothing worked, and the level of frustration felt by Arkansas coach Stan Heath and Hogs assistant Dan Hipsher skyrocketed on a daily basis.

Arkansas needed to fill its basketball schedule for this season, needed to find foes to fill Bud Walton Arena seats, and quality biters were nowhere to be found.

Finally this past spring, when they had received enough thanks-but-no thanks responses from major-conference schools, they reluctantly moved on. The Razorbacks scheduled schools such as Stephen F. Austin, Central Michigan and Louisiana Tech. Heath and Hipsher disliked the final product. But they didn't know what else they could do.

"We fought hard and made every phone call you could think of to draw (major) conference teams to our court," Heath said. "We held out as long as we could hold out, and then we had to get opponents."

The teams Heath and Hipsher finally had to settle on have done little to draw crowds in Fayetteville.

Four games into its nonconference home schedule, Arkansas is on pace for its worst attendance showing in Heath's five years as coach.

In each of Heath's first four seasons, the Razorbacks played eight nonconference games in Bud Walton Arena. In his first season, Arkansas averaged 12,499 fans in those eight contests. In his second season, that figure rose to 13,055. Arkansas drew an average of 13,086 fans in his third season but the number dipped to 12,334 last season.

So far -- in victories over Southeast Missouri State, Stephen F. Austin, Missouri-Kansas City and Central Michigan -- 10,109, on average, have shown up this season at Bud Walton Arena. Twice, less than 8,400 fans turned out.

"Playing some of those teams is the only way to get enough home games to fulfill the budget and bring crowds in," Hipsher said.

That point goes to the heart of the scheduling difficulties faced by not just Arkansas. Most major-conference schools prefer to play at least eight nonconference games in their home buildings, and the reason is simple.

Money.

Arkansas, as with most schools, is being forced to pay out a "guarantee" fee to lesser competition because scheduling home-and-home series with major-conference teams proves difficult. A "guarantee" game is a one-shot deal, meaning Arkansas doesn't have to return the favor and travel to Central Michigan next season, for example.

This is done because basketball is a profit sport and dropping home games cuts into the bottom line.

"The normal rule of thumb is $20,000 to $60,000 for those games," said Tom Dorre, associate athletic director for business. "It usually depends on how far they have to come."

Considering all of the Razorbacks' eight nonconference home games this season are of the "guarantee" variety, Arkansas' athletic department will be spend at least $160,000 on fees.

When asked if he'd rather trade a couple of "guarantee" games for one more high-profile home game, Heath simply answered, "That's not my decision. That's not determined by me."

It's pretty obvious, though, that Heath and Hipsher would like to bring in some major-conference opponents to create more enticing entertainment options for fans.

Unfortunately, that just hasn't seemed possible. Hipsher said every major-conference school experiences these hardships.

"Look at North Carolina, look at Michigan, look at Kentucky, look at Florida, look at Kansas," Hipsher said. "They're all struggling to find home games, too. But it's not like we don't play anybody good. We do."

Hipsher's right. In fact, the Hogs' strength of schedule is ranked in the top 20 by several Web sites. Potential NCAA Tournament teams such as Southern Illinois, Marist, West Virginia, Missouri, Texas Tech, Texas, Oral Roberts and Tulsa all are on this season's schedule.

But only Oral Roberts and Tulsa will travel to Bud Walton Arena.

With this in mind, Heath has noticed the dwindling attendance. He also realizes the benefits of creating a buzz in Fayetteville early in the season, especially when the football team is experiencing success.

"We had the best home record in the conference (15-1) last season, and a big reason was the enthusiasm in this building," Heath said. "In order for us to have that kind of success again, that needs to happen."

Hipsher, the "point man" in scheduling, said he, Heath, athletic director Frank Broyles and executive associate athletic director Bill Gray have made finding quality opponents a priority. Results are showing.

Missouri and Texas travel to Bud Walton next season. The Hogs also will start a home-and-home series with Oklahoma, and Hipsher vowed to sign on one more major-conference foe.

Still, Heath doesn't blame those who have chosen to stay home, those who have decided to pass on early season matchups with the likes of Missouri-Kansas City.

"Coach Broyles has talked about that, and he indicated to me that the schedule is going to be what draws fans to the games," Heath said.

"So, it's understandable."


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