Economic impact of college football means season cancellation will crush college town economies reliant on sports visitation
Besides the economic impact of closed colleges on college towns ... although the nature of student-supported retail is pretty narrow, pretty much food and drink -- but not of the faculty and staff, which is pretty considerable, there is the negative impact of the loss of "move in" and "move out" weekends, family related visitation tourism, and the loss of sports-related tourism.
The 2015 entry, "Tourism economic impact of University of Michigan football," discusses the economic impact of college football on Ann Arbor, Michigan, a city of over 100,000 residents on the western edge of the Detroit metropolitan area.
I didn't discuss how this argument is extendable to other Big 10 or major college football towns (Auburn, Alabama, Clemson, South Carolina, Tallahassee, Florida, College Station, Texas, Waco, Texas, Athens, Georgia, etc.), which may or not be located within larger metropolitan economies, the way that Ann Arbor is part of Metropolitan Detroit or teams in Columbus Ohio or Minneapolis are in the center cities of a larger metropolitan area.
Universities too are increasingly asking for subsidies from state and local governments to fund stadiums and arenas, justifying it on the local economic impact.
Chicago built DePaul a Downtown-located basketball arena to put the team's fans in a better position to spend more money when attending games ("DePaul arena part of Emanuel's $300 million in projects," Chicago Tribune), although that doesn't seem to be working out ("Taxpayer-funded Wintrust Arena falls short of attendance projections," Illinois Policy).
Although the Baylor University college football stadium has been a key element of that city's revitalization planning as well as increasing the success of the school ("The creation of Baylor," Texas Monthly). Although it's diverted money away from meeting other city priorities.
The effect is likely to be more pronounced when the college towns are more separate outposts from metropolitan economies.
Whereas sports tourism is touted for professional sports like football and basketball, the reality is that most event attendees are local, and don't generate "out of market" revenues that aren't merely a substitute for spending on something else.
This is a little different for professional football, which has fewer games, especially in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic the cities (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington) are close enough where fans will travel to away games.
But also in the Midwest between Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Green Bay.
The huge expensive stadiums being built in Los Angeles ("Will the LA Ramsnew Englewood stadium be an economic boom or bust?," Los Angeles Daily News) and Las Vegas ("Southern Nevada gaining tourism asset with Las Vegas Raiders stadium") are justified in large part over their ability to drive tourist patronage.
(The Washington Football Team is notorious for losing its home field advantage as local residents stop buying tickets and attending games, leaving large blocs of tickets to be bought up by traveling fans. See the Washington Times article "Home-field advantage a rarity for Snyder's Redskins.")
College football and to some extent college basketball are different because the alumni base for the school isn't necessarily geographically bounded.
Hardcore alumni fans travel to games, often over great distances, and spend money on lodging, food, and other retail in ways that are significant for the local economy and businesses.
Although not all schools within the big conferences benefit equally from sports team related commerce. Schools like the University of Maryland or the University of Connecticut aren't really college towns ("More Prince George's County: College Park's militant refusal to become a college town makes it impossible for the city(and maybe the County) to become a great place") in the same way as Madison, Wisconsin, State College, Pennsylvania, and Ann Arbor and Lansing, Michigan.
When Michigan Stadium is empty, it's just one big hole. Photo: Getty Images.
The cancellation of the fall football season because of the pandemic ("Big Ten cancels college football season for fall 2020, hopes to play in spring 2021," CBS Sports) is going to have significant impact on college town economies dependent on football game related tourism.
Even if the season is shifted to the Spring, it will be difficult for pandemic-effected businesses to hang on til then ("In Big Ten cities, a fall without college football is a crushing economic blow," Washington Post). From the article:
“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 going to be a tough fall to even get to that point.”