In Big Ten cities, fall without college football is crushing economic blow

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The players won’t play, the marching bands will remain silent and the large stadiums across the Big Ten Conference will sit empty this fall, leaving a hole for college football fans who build their year around a dozen or so Saturdays. But the true impact stretches far beyond the locker rooms and stadium turnstiles.

The cancellation of the fall season promises to wallop businesses who count on those fall weekends for survival, and the economic impact likely will measure in the tens of millions in many of the small towns across the sprawling conference.

“We’re like a lot of businesses: We rely on the back-to-school and football season to really be our big moneymaking months,” said Michael Weber, vice president of Weber’s Boutique Hotel in Ann Arbor, Mich.

For some decades now, the downtown hotel has been packed on fall weekends. Fans from all over pour into town to fill the 107,601-seat stadium—the country’s largest—and also fill one of the area’s most storied hotels. For many, the pregame brunch and postgame dinners at Weber’s are staples.

Last week’s news that the Big Ten would not be playing football this fall wasn’t just a gut-punch; it struck businesses and industries that already had been walloped mightily this year by the novel coronavirus pandemic, many that were hoping a busy football season could salvage the year financially. Hotels, bars and restaurants—many of the businesses that thrive during the college football season—are also many of the ones hit hardest by the pandemic.

Weber’s was closed for a full month in the spring and is still operating at less than 50% of its normal sales.

“We’ve all been hoping for a speedy recovery, where everybody is hoping to return to normal,” Weber said. “This is just another reminder that we are not going to be returning to normal any time soon.”

From Lincoln, Neb., to New Brunswick, N.J., businesses in Big Ten towns that count on those fall Saturdays are coming to terms with what it means to lose a full season, some bracing for the worst.

In Indiana, Purdue University home football games create an estimated economic of about $20 million, according to Visit Lafayette and West Lafayette. And the local Holiday Inn usually brings in $100,000 in revenue on game weekends.

Visit Bloomington recently estimated that Indiana University home football games generate an economic impact for the city of about $5 million each. The Hoosiers had five home games on the schedule before the season was canceled.

“It’s just devastating news,” said Fritz Smith, chief executive of the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau, the tourism organization in State College, Pa., a town built around Penn State University that swells on game days, temporarily becoming Pennsylvania’s third-largest city. “I’ll be honest: There’s real fear in the community and a real trepidation about how some businesses reliant on the spending of visitors associated with the games, are going to get through this. They’ve already had five months of difficult operating environment, and this is kind of yet another leg of the table being kicked out.”

He estimates Penn State football brings in more than $70 million in visitor spending each year. Penn State fans typically spend three nights in hotels, three days shopping at stores, three nights eating out. And this fall they’ll all stay home.

“Hopefully there’s a season in the spring and everything bounces back,” he said. “But it’s gonna be a tough fall to even get to that point.”

In Madison, Wis., each home game generates around $16 million for the local economy, according to Jason Ilstrup, president of Downtown Madison Inc., and for some retailers on State Street, upward of 70% of their annual revenue is tied to events and tourism.

Ilstrup points out that it’s not just business owners taking a hit, but the servers and cooks in restaurants, front desk workers and housekeepers at hotels, the suppliers and farmers and drivers that keep everything running. And in turn, they’ll all have less money to put back in the local economy.

“Many places are already teetering on the brink,” he said. “Their PPP funding is running out. They’re running out of solutions. Many have changed strategies—restaurants doing more takeout or stores delivering things to customers—but it’s only percentages of their normal revenue and that can’t last forever.”

In many college towns, the football team is a rallying point, something that brings together the school, the community, the entire state. Nebraska has a Triple-A baseball team in Omaha, but no other professional team. The Cornhuskers captivate the entire state and draw everyone together.

In downtown Lincoln, even when the team is home, more than 5,000 people typically pack into the Railyard, the massive outdoor entertainment district, on game days to watch games on the 14-by-40-foot screen. They buy drinks all weekend to celebrate wins, mourn losses, relive memories and create some new ones.

“When the schedule was released last week, we figured it’d be a big boost for the downtown area,” said Bill Hipsher, president of Hurrdat, which manages the Railyard. “They had it all over the Big Ten Network, and there was a lot of fanfare. We thought, ‘OK, maybe there won’t be fans in the stands, but it looked like a big win for the businesses.’ We figured people would be eager to congregate and watch games together.”

And now many business are trying to see how they can survive through a cold winter, many with limited capacity, all of them hoping a spring football season can be safely played.

“There are some restaurants and bars in the downtown area who in the next two weeks will make a decision to close their doors,” Hipsher said. “They struggled with COVID and thought football might be the light at the end of the tunnel. Now that’s gone.”

For many, the impact can’t be measured in ledgers and bank statements. Many of the businesses are family-owned staples of the community, their owners and employees dependent on the local football team emotionally as well as financially.

In Iowa City, Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack has been churning out game-day meals and filling catering orders for Saturday tailgates for 15 years. Jack Piper, one of the owners, will miss the business, sure; but he’ll also miss the football.

“The emotional side of things: This is a big deal to Iowans and Iowa City. From that standpoint, it’s a huge blow,” he said. “We’ll do our best and hopefully break even. But we’ll all miss it. You see the same people every weekend, year after year. It’s part of the experience; it really is.

“The game is definitely why everyone’s here, but it’s everything around the game that kind of makes it special.”

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