Economists at the University of San Diego School of Business in December released the findings from a study that sought to determine why fans contribute financially to college athletics programs.
And they found, among other things, that donors aren’t motivated simply by wins, which elicited mild surprise from researchers. Which begs the question — have any of them ever ventured east of Albuquerque?
Throughout much of the South and pockets of the Midwest, devotion to college sports — college football in particular — is almost religion. Fandom is akin to patriotism.
Pro sports took much longer to take root in the mostly rural South, which offered fewer sports-allegiance outlets. Before TV elevated the consumption of sports into an American pastime, sports fans were reduced to huddling in front of the radio and listening to baseball games played in, for Southerners anyway, exotic faraway places like Cleveland.
Local college teams represented the only chance most Americans had to see a game in person.
As college sports — again, college football, in particular — began to gain national traction in the mid-20th century, and fandom evolved into an heirloom passed between generations, Southern fans started equating their teams to armies on the battlefield, defending the homeland from invaders.
Star players were, and are, treated like returning heroes who vanquished evil on distant shores. Consider Razorback basketball’s hardworking Devo Davis and the cult hero status he enjoys following this past spring’s Elite 8 run.
Us against them. Consider, as well, Arkansas-Ole Miss in Little Rock, 1960. The Hogs’ controversial 10-7 loss on a last-second “field goal” resulted in the series being shelved for 20-plus years because of lingering animosity attached to the postgame brawl that filled the War Memorial bleachers and spilled out onto the parking lot. It remains one of the more controversial finishes in Razorback history, and there have been many.
(Hog fans had a legitimate beef. Referee Tommy Bell called an official timeout for “excessive crowd noise” an instant before Ole Miss kicker Allen Green launched what should’ve been a game-winning 39-yard field goal that split the uprights. Apparently wishing to make amends, Bell signaled the follow-up “official” kick good even though it clearly hooked. For what it’s worth, Ole Miss players and coaches reacted as if the kick were no good.)
That Little Rock Saturday night more than 60 years ago helps explain what motivates college sports fans to give money, oftentimes large amounts of it, to their favorite programs. What motivates them is simple devotion, win or lose, whether born of a loyalty to a family member or a particular school or state. And the connections run deep.
A prime example in Arkansas is Home Bancshares Chairman and CEO Johnny Allison, prominent Arkansas State booster. Home Bancshares is the $15 billion holding company co-founded by Allison, and its portfolio includes Conway-based Centennial Bank.
In 2017, Allison made a personal commitment of $5 million to ASU athletics, his second such gift in four years and the largest personal commitment ever made to the program. Coupled with a $5 million commitment from Centennial, the 2017 contribution enabled ASU to finance its $29 million football operations center, which bears the Centennial Bank name. The stadium already bears the bank’s name, and the playing surface now is named for Allison. For that matter, so is the stadium’s press box, dubbed the Johnny Allison Tower.
“This was the first thing I ever allowed to use my name as a ‘naming right,’ and I deliberated about doing it,” Allison told Arkansas Money & Politics. “It’s still surreal to look up at that tower or down on that field and see my name and the name of Centennial Bank. I am honored to be able to make such a donation to an institution that has meant so much to me and my family for several generations. I enjoy attending as many home Red Wolf games as I’m able to, and it’s very rewarding to be a part of this outstanding program.”
The Jonesboro native grew up right next to campus and played football for ASU in 1968. His connection to the school and program is as strong as they come. Not only did his family’s land lie adjacent to campus, his mother, father, sister, aunts, uncles, cousins and his grandmother attended or worked at ASU. Allison’s dad was even the first president of the Indian Club. (ASU teams, of course, were known as the Indians until 2008.)
“For me, it’s about a family legacy… ASU is an integral part of the community in Jonesboro, and it has given a lot to me and my family.”
It was on campus that Allison heard Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson speak at an event, which he credits with motivating him to launch his business career. For Allison and booster/fans like him, the connection to a school or program is almost spiritual.
The Razorback Foundation, the nonprofit organization that exists to support Razorback sports, currently has more than 12,000 member donors. As of 2019, more than 1,200 of them had been giving for 40 consecutive years.
“This level of steadfast support and commitment is phenomenal and helped build Razorback athletics,” said Scott Varady, the Foundation’s executive director. “As Coach Sam Pittman often says, ‘Arkansas is a proud damn state,’ and for many Arkansans, the Razorbacks represent the very best of Arkansas. This level of passion translates into generous financial contributions to the Razorback Foundation to support Razorback athletics.”
Giving was down everywhere, in every sector, in 2020. But the Foundation still reported more than $27 million in gifts for the year, a drop of roughly 13 percent from 2019. Though the pandemic made charitable giving a more challenging proposition, Varady said Hog fans stepped up in other ways, supporting the Foundation’s “ONE Razorback” campaign.
“Instead of requesting a refund of their annual fund donations to the Razorback Foundation, the overwhelming majority of members chose to keep their annual fund gifts to support Razorback athletics,” he said. “Additionally, hundreds of Razorback Foundation members and fans donated their ticket refunds back to the ONE Razorback Fund. Further, the Razorback Foundation launched creative initiatives such as the Virtual ONE Razorback Open Golf Tournament to generate new revenues in support of Razorback athletics.”
Varady thinks Hog fans make his job an easy one.
“We were humbled, but not surprised, that Hog fans stepped up in such a big way,” Varady said of the pandemic-year support. “There is truly no other fan base that can compare to Razorback nation. Razorback red runs deep in this state, and we are fortunate to get to be a part of it.”
The San Diego study also found that donors are more likely to give when asked to support a specific project or need, and giving spikes after big wins as well. Last year, the football win at Mississippi State, the women’s basketball’s upset of top-ranked Baylor, the NCAA indoor track championship and the Dollars for Dingers campaign for baseball combined to generate gifts of more than $3 million to the ONE Razorback Fund.
Like Allison stepping up for ASU, Razorback programs haven’t lacked for big donors providing big donations for big projects. The Razorback basketball and baseball programs represent two examples. James “Bud” Walton, brother of Sam, gave $15 million in 1993 (factoring in inflation, $27 million today) to enable the construction of Bud Walton Arena, the fifth-largest on-campus basketball arena in the country. His gift represented about half the cost to build the arena.
And the construction and subsequent expansions and enhancements of Razorback baseball’s venerable Baum-Walker Stadium, finished in 1996 at a cost of roughly $9 million ($16.2 million today), was made possible by gifts from Arkansas families who support UA athletics. The $10 million indoor track and baseball training center on campus was made possible by the Fowler family as was the $27 million Hunt Family Baseball Development Center, which opened this year in Baum’s right-field corner.
Rush Harding III, co-founder of Little Rock investment banking firm Crews & Associates and co-owner of Cache Restaurant, always knew he’d support his alma mater. His blood runs UCA purple. His dad, a legendary highschool football coach at Clarendon, was a star athlete at Arkansas State Teachers College before it became State College of Arkansas and ultimately the University of Central Arkansas.
Harding ended up at UCA himself and was a member of the basketball team. One of his sons, Payne, followed in his footsteps. Supporting UCA, academically and athletically, is a given for him. Harding and Linda, his wife and fellow UCA alum, are co-chairing the school’s current $100 million fundraising campaign, to which they gifted $3 million earlier this year.
“I know firsthand the difference a great coach and athletics can make in the lives of young people,” Harding said. “Sports is simply another area where UCA excels. The Honors College is second to none. Our nursing department is excellent. There is no shortage of meaningful programs for our stakeholders to get involved with.”
UCA, which officially joined the rebranded ASUN Conference (formerly the Atlantic Sun) on July 1, is set to compete this fall as a one-year affiliate member of the revamped Western Athletic Conference until the ASUN launches football in 2022. The move better positions the school should it ever consider making the move to the FBS level of Division 1.
This new adventure that lies ahead for Bear athletes seems to have motivated Bear fans. Matt Whiting, associate athletic director for external relations at UCA, said his department’s annual drive to boost membership in its Purple Circle donor group is well ahead of previous years and noted significant growth in giving the last few years.
“The response has been great,” he said. “We are fortunate to have a great fan and donor base at UCA, and I think everyone is very excited about the future in the ASUN. The ASUN is an innovative, forward-thinking league, and I think our fans recognize the competitive nature of the league in all sports. It’s an exciting time for all associated with Central Arkansas athletics.”
Of course, there are those donors who prefer the old American Express approach: Membership has its privileges. Membership in UCA’s Purple Circle starts at the $100 Cub level and goes up to the Trustee’s Circle, starting at $10,000 a year.
“We are very fortunate to have a great base of philanthropic donors at UCA — people who love the university and our athletic programs and believe in supporting our student-athletes and programs in their efforts to achieve excellence in the classroom and in competition,” Whiting said. “We also have those who I would call transactional donors, those who give because they enjoy the benefits and experiences they receive as supporters and friends of our program. Both are critically important to our success as a department.”
Membership levels in the Razorback Foundation begin with Young Alumni, $35 a year, and top out with the Broyles-Matthews Platinum level, starting at $20,000. Other levels are Razorback, $50-$99; Big Red, $100-$499; Big Hog, $500-$999; Tush Hog, $1,000-$1,999; Wild Hog, $2,000-$2,999; Super Hog, $3,000-$4,999; Broyles-Matthews Silver, $5,000-$9,999 and Broyles-Matthews Gold, $10,000-$19,999.
Membership affords privileges at all levels including, 15 percent discounts at Hog Heaven stores (but not on game days, unfortunately), invitations to members-only events and ticket priority. Perks for Broyles-Matthews donors include priority seating and parking for football, basketball and baseball; an increased number of parking passes; a membership plaque; two special member gifts; and even College World Series ticket eligibility.
And that’s not even counting the prestige afforded such high-end contributors when all Foundation donors were listed by level in Razorback game programs and media guides.
The Razorback Foundation, like its counterparts at other universities, did its best to stay connected with donors and fans during the pandemic. It offered members access to exclusive “Tusk Talk” events via Zoom, in which former Hog greats would participate and share their stories.
Pandemic aside, other exclusive opportunities for members include the opportunity to attend practices, have a family photo taken inside Razorback facilities and member appreciation celebrations with coaches and staff.
“The Razorbacks unify the great state of Arkansas into one family,” Varady said. “As result of the strength of those bonds, we take great pride that Razorback athletics is the only self-supporting NCAA Division I program in Arkansas. Specifically, the University of Arkansas Department of Athletics is one of only a handful of departments nationally that is financially self-sufficient. Meaning, it receives $0 from state or taxpayer funding and $0 from student fees or direct university funding.
“And there are no mandatory student fees. Razorback athletics generates its own revenues from a variety of sources including, among others, private gift support donated to the Razorback Foundation, ticket sales, sponsorships and advertising and SEC member distributions.”
Ah, those SEC member distributions. With news breaking in late July that Oklahoma and Texas are likely SEC-bound, the SEC checks Arkansas cashes each year, already in excess of $50 million, stand to get bigger. But the Foundation’s foundation remains those fans willing to put their money where their allegiance lies.
And that goes for any program whose end goal is to serve its customers, the ones who live and die on last-second shots and field goals, from Arkansas Tech to ASU to Arkansas.
Allison, for one, always knew that one day he’d financially support ASU and the program that means so much to him. Doing so keeps him connected not just to the school, but to the sport he loves.
“I like to work with athletes and farmers. Farmers work from daylight to dark, and athletes push themselves and never give up,” he explained. “Having been an athlete myself, and having benefited in many ways from ASU, once I finally got to the point where I was ready to make such a sizable donation, there was no question that it would be to ASU and their athletic program. In the back of my mind, I always knew I would do it if I could.”
Varady said private gift support, no matter its size, is the lifeblood of college programs, helping them achieve their objectives.
“Coach Frank Broyles always credited the passion of the Razorback fans as a key element to the success of Razorback athletics, including private gift support donated to the Razorback Foundation.”