President Trump and like-minded allies are centering their push for college football on the fate of student-athletes, but the impact of major-conference cancellations is far more widespread, with university towns facing deep economic pain from the coronavirus pandemic.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences swatted aside high-profile opposition in opting to postpone their fall seasons. They said they could not guarantee safety within campuses and communities where the coronavirus is spreading. The impact will be felt across the country.
Tony Mollica, owner of the Varsity Club Restaurant and Bar in Columbus, Ohio, summed up the fallout in one word: “Devastating.”
He would have 100 people working on a typical Saturday game day. Now he has two people working the floor.
“We are an Ohio State football town, and the Varsity Club happens to be 200 yards from the stadium,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday.
The Big Ten’s decision “will impact many, many lives, including my own, obviously,” he said. “We’re going to try to get through it. You hear stuff on TV about the cure is worse than the disease. I don’t know what to believe anymore.”
Bill LaFayette, founder of Regionomics, a firm in Columbus that focuses on economic development strategy and local economies, said the lack of foot traffic will have a ripple effect in the metropolitan area as the initial plan to limit stadium attendance morphed into no fall college sports season at all.
“There’s certainly going to be an impact on the dollars going into the economy because we draw from people all over Ohio and beyond for these games,” he said. “They bring their dollars in, they spend their dollars. The merchants and restaurants that serve those folks then buy stuff from their suppliers. It is a substantial impact.”
Scott Frost, the head football coach at the University of Nebraska, wants to find a way to play outside the Big Ten. In widely broadcast remarks, he said the surrounding region will lose out alongside his players.
“The city of Lincoln will lose upwards of $300 million if we don’t play football, and the state of Nebraska will lose hundreds of millions we if we don’t play football,” he said.
Businesses in Salt Lake City are bracing for another COVID-19 knock as their beloved Utah Utes are sidelined.
“The full and immediate impact of fall sports being canceled by the Pac-12 cannot be measured yet, but we know that it will be acute,” said Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber business association. “Downtown Salt Lake City sits adjacent to the University of Utah and is already feeling the impact of the coronavirus on commerce in retail, restaurants and other establishments. Saturdays in the fall would be the prime shopping day of the week and provided a weekly stimulus to our local economy.”
College football has been a mainstay of American life for about 150 years. Big Ten games are appointment television for people across the Midwest and Rust Belt, while the Pac-12 features interstate rivalries from the Rockies to the Pacific — plus the University of Oregon’s conversation-starting uniforms.
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott acknowledged that he knew how disappointing the decision would be but said it was guided by science and “a deep commitment to the health and welfare of student-athletes.”
Unlike professional leagues, he said, college athletics cannot operate in a bubble that shields players and coaches from the virus.
Mr. Trump, who faces a reelection battle in November, is pushing all schools to resume in-person learning this fall. He says that includes football.
“We want to see college football,” Mr. Trump said at a White House event on schools Wednesday. “I think some of it will happen. To a large extent, it’s going to happen.”
He said he spoke with Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, a vocal advocate for letting athletes play under the belief that they are safer under team protocols than living outside of them.
“He said, ‘Hey, I’m a lot safer on the field than I am being out there.’ He got it, he got it very quickly,” Mr. Trump said.
If there is an upside to scrapping football, it’s that fewer people will gather in bars or mix households to watch games in high-transmission areas. COVID-19 has affected every corner of the country and killed over 165,000 people in the U.S.
Governors in hard-hit states have traced COVID-19 flare-ups to young people gathering in bars, leading to a patchwork of closures, capacity restrictions or curfews that cap alcohol sales at a certain hour.
As much as people love their college sports, they “nonetheless bring people together in an unguarded fashion,” said William Schaffner, an infectious diseases specialist at Vanderbilt University.
It’s also better for restaurants to learn about colleges’ plans and adjust now rather than being caught flat-footed on game day, Mr. Lafayette said.
“It’s much, much, better,” he said. “Because if it were discovered on a Thursday afternoon you had athletes testing positive [and games were canceled], all the restaurants have laid in their food and inventory and a lot of that would go to waste.”
Still, the decision not to play football is another devastating hit to college-based economies, which were hobbled this spring and face a dwindling student population as online classes expand.
“It’s another struggle that business owners have to try to weather,” said Rob Gard, director of public relations for Destination Madison, which promotes economic activity in the Wisconsin capital.
Eateries and boutiques in the city thrive from out-of-town traffic on the pedestrian-friendly State Street between the state Capitol and the University of Wisconsin.
Mr. Gard said the biggest blow came a week ago when the University of Wisconsin announced it would not sell tickets for football games at Camp Randall Stadium. The Big Ten’s decision Tuesday solidified the loss, though businesses probably anticipated it.
“I doubt many of those business owners were looking toward September or October and suddenly seeing 70,000 people show up,” Mr. Gard said.
Curtis Schulman, director of operations at The Corner Room — a popular restaurant in State College, Pennsylvania — said the Big Ten’s decision would be “financially devastating” in a normal year, in which the fortunes of Penn State football can dictate up to 30% of its revenue.
This isn’t a normal year, however, with pandemic restrictions upending business. Instead, he said, the state’s decision to restrict indoor capacity from 50% to 25% is what’s “really crippling.”
“It’s quite frankly not made anything safer,” he said.
Mr. Shulman said he doesn’t necessarily disagree with the Big Ten’s decision, given efforts to reintegrate students in the community and send a consistent message on COVID-19.
“The big loss of football is more emotional for us,” he said.
Mr. Mollica, in Columbus, said it has been a roller-coaster ride for several months.
“Everybody got laid off in March. Then we got the loan, the PPP, so everybody came back. So that lasted two months then everybody got reduced hours because there’s no business,” Mr. Mollica said.
At one point, Ohio State planned to reduce attendance at its mammoth “Horseshoe” stadium to about one-fifth of its capacity, or 20,000 people. That would have been more than enough to ensure foot traffic at the Varsity Club, Mr. Mollica said.
“We just needed anything, just them to play on TV,” he said. “Even if there was no fans, we would have had a big business. I’d probably have 20, 30 people working.”
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