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Front Page - Friday, July 31, 2020

Football time in Tennessee?

‘UT’s got a plan’ but the city’s business owners depend on gameday income

Autumn in Knoxville can mean 100,000 or more rolling into town on seven weekends to spend millions of dollars and cheer on the Vols. - Photo by David Rosenblum | Icon Sportswire

We all remember those glory days of sitting in Neyland Stadium, peering down at the field and listening to the broadcast on radio headphones. The thrills and chills that ran up the spine just before kickoff as the late, great announcer John Ward uttered his signature catchphrase:

“It’s football time in Tennessee!”

But what if it isn’t?

That’s the big question for Knoxvillians and Vols fans across the state as they come to grips with the very real possibility that the University of Tennessee’s 2020 football season might be delayed or canceled altogether because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s an issue that hits home both emotionally and economically.

“It’s hard for me to even imagine no football,’’ says Helen O’Connor Morton, one of the leaders of the Cumberland Avenue Merchants Association. She, her husband and son own University Liquors.

“It’s just not a happy place to go, thinking that it’s not going to happen. Honestly, it would be devastating to the economy for fall football not to happen in some fashion.’’

“I almost don’t even want to think about what the psyche of the school is going to be like if they have to cancel football,” says Alan Carmichael, chief operating officer and president of Moxley Carmichael, a public relations firm. “Peoples’ lives are so intertwined with the Volunteers and it is a big topic of conversation. People go to the games, they watch them on TV, they talk about it all week long.”

Imagine games being played at an empty Neyland Stadium, or at least a socially distanced gathering of fans wearing Big Orange masks. No Pride of Southland Band playing “Rocky Top,” live at least.

Outside the stadium, it’s pretty much the same scenario. Imagine the Strip with no traffic, few vendors selling Vols T-shirts and memorabilia. Limited tailgating, if any. No Vol Navy. No Vol Walk. No buzz.

“We have been looking at this, and I really don’t see how they can start college football as scheduled, that’s been our take basically for a couple of months,’’ says Chuck Cavalaris, a former Knoxville sports writer and now a commentator for the Sports Source on WATE-TV.

“Right now, will people accept the fact that maybe no fans in the stands or is it 20%? Certainly, the whole tailgating aspect is on hold,” adds Cavalaris, also a Knoxville Realtor. “So I think you’re looking at a delay until mid-September or later – and keep your fingers crossed. And hope something improves to where in October or November we can still have a season and get back as close to normal as we can.”

Known vs. great unknown

Some major conferences have already announced plans to begin a reduced schedule (12 to 9 games) in late September. SEC presidents and chancellors were to meet virtually Thursday to discuss how rising COVID-19 numbers could alter or cancel the coming season.

In public service ads, UT athletics director Phillip Fulmer has been urging Vols fans to mask up if they want to have a football season. In mid-June the former head football coach tweeted: “As long as the curve and the trends continue to move in the right direction, I’m confident we will be playing football in Neyland Stadium this fall.’’

Unfortunately, that has not been the case in Tennessee. There has been an upward trend of positive COVID-19 cases across the state since Memorial Day.

There is reason for optimism, as most professional sports have returned to the field, albeit in shortened seasons. But a number of positive tests canceled major league baseball games earlier this week, causing the sports world to worry anew.

Several scenarios that the SEC is said to be considering would be a conference-only schedule of eight games, with possibly a ninth game that would allow teams to play one contest against another power-conference foe.

Some have suggested delaying the upcoming season until spring. Simply canceling the season would be a worst-case scenario.

“I think in the end we’re going to have some kind of hybrid where you have some success, you’ll have some kind of action,” says Joe Favorito, a sports marketing professor at Columbia University, noting the slow return of pro sports.

“The people who realize the value of what college athletics brings to a community like Knoxville isn’t just about what happens in 2020, it’s about what’s going to happen in 2025 and 2035,’’ he adds. “Anyone looking to capitalize on a short-term opportunity is going to be sadly mistaken because this is a long-term investment that the community – let alone the university – has to make.”

‘UT’s got a plan’

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs discussed the possibilities on a conference call with Fulmer, Knoxville city Mayor Indya Kincannon and other school and government officials.

“A lot of it is up to the SEC, how they have to go about that,’’ he acknowledges. “Of course, it will be different in every state that they’re in because different states have different instructions and different mandates.

“And a lot of it, frankly, I think is what plays out over the next month or so as far as the pandemic and the numbers that we’re seeing,” says Jacobs, who wrestled professionally as “Kane” before being elected county mayor.

“And UT’s got a plan. They have different scenarios and things that would help them cope with this. And I think no matter what, football will be a little different this year. They need to expect things like you probably have to wear a mask at the game, have your temperature checked or things like that. The Vol Walk might be out this year, unfortunately.”

Jacobs says those discussions covered “three scenarios of what could happen. One would be no fans. The second is having the stadium at partial attendance. And then first, of course, which would be the best, would be to be back at 100% capacity.

“Hopefully, maybe we can move toward that throughout the season. But I would expect to see some sort of limited capacity at the stadium when the season opens,” Jacobs adds.

Kincannon says health concerns must be the first consideration for athletes, fans and support staff.

“I am a huge supporter of UT football and have been a season ticket holder for years,” the first-term mayor says. “Our city is full of energy and pride every fall as the Vols take the field.

“Football is also a huge economic driver in this region, but the well-being and safety of students and fans must be paramount. I, like so many others, will be disappointed if this year’s football season is canceled, but I am also aware that tough decisions often need to be made in the name of public health.”

Economic explanations

Bill Fox, director of UT’s Center for Economic Research, consults with Gov. Bill Lee and his administration and is knowledgeable about the economic impacts of COVID-19.

Fox says several industries across the county will take a hit if there’s no football, especially the hotel and food service sector if opposing teams’ fans are no longer allowed to travel.

“Football has been an important source of economic activity for Knoxville,’’ Fox explains. “There are large numbers of people who not only come to the games, but they come to Knoxville from broad areas. They stay in the hotels, they eat in the restaurants, they buy paraphernalia and all that sort of thing.

“And so it’s important to the university from a revenue perspective but it’s important to the community. And the community outside the university impacted by football is the same industry that’s been very hard hit in recent months; it’s leisure and hospitality.”

“If football does not come back fully – and it’s hard to imagine it will be fully back with 90,000 or 100,000 people at every game – this will be felt by the hotels in downtown Knoxville … and the county. It will be felt in the restaurants and the bars and other entertainment. And it will be felt by souvenir vendors and so it’s important.’’

Fox also points out that the school’s athletic department would also suffer if the football season is shortened or canceled. In the June meeting of the board of trustees, the proposed athletic department budget was reduced $10.1 million for the current fiscal year from $138.3 million in 2019-20 to $128.2 million in 2020-21.

“While the athletic department is mostly fiscally separate, it would matter a lot from a revenue perspective,” Fox says. “It’s conceivable, though I think not likely, that no football games will be played – in which case you could lose all the revenue.

“In between, of course, is the situation in which the games are played with zero or very small crowds. And so, if this middle situation takes place, then the university probably still gets a lot of revenue from the television side of this and the advertising side of it and so forth. But it loses ticket sales, parking sales and so forth, as well as concessions at the games. And so, significant revenue, are the consequences.”

Adds Doug Lawyer, vice president of economic development for the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce: “The economic impact of football – and UT athletics in general – is just a big chunk of our economy.

“If UT football wins a big game on a Saturday, Mondays are always just better in Knoxville. There’s a higher energy in the town, people spend more money. It’s a proven fact that when the team wins, after the game people go out and celebrate, and if they lose they just get in their cars and go home. So there’s a definite psychological impact on, one, having football and, two, having a team that wins.”

‘Holding our breath’

Several Knoxville business leaders say that while the spring-summer impacts of COVID-19 have been rough, it would be nothing compared to a fall without football. “Devastating” is an often-invoked word.

“Like everybody downtown, right now we’re just kind of holding our breath and hoping that some kind of miracle will come along and save the season,” says Rick Dover, owner of the Hyatt Place Downtown, a 10-story hotel with a rooftop replaced the historic Farragut Hotel where the SEC was founded Dec. 12, 1932. “I know nobody wants to see the season scrapped, including us.

“I can’t tell you the exact amount of business on the books, but it’s in the millions. We have seen a pickup as of late in the hotel business, particularly on weekends and especially with leisure travelers. And we’re very grateful for that. But, man, in our part of the world, the world spins around Tennessee football – and basketball, as well.

“We’re just kind of holding our breath like everybody else, hoping that at some point things start returning to normal. Sooner rather than later. But it’s a tremendous amount of business because of our relationship with the University of Tennessee.”

Chris Ford and George Ewart are competitors when it comes to serving up some of Knoxville’s best barbecue, but they’re on the same side when contemplating fall without football.

“First off, I’m not a doom-and-gloom guy,” says Ford, owner of Sweet P’s Barbecue. “If you own a restaurant or nightclub or bar in downtown Knoxville, spring is even better than football in some years, and we just went through the worst spring that any of us have ever had.

“So my first thought is it can’t be any worse than it was this spring. In fact, it can only be better in the sense that we’ve at least got our restaurants opening and people are (returning).

“I’m down about 25% right now and, to your point, that doesn’t mean we’re not going to be further down come football season. At that point, if business were to stay the same as it is now, we go up another 20% on good home games, so it’s going to hurt.

“For a lot of people, it’s going to hurt just not having football in Knoxville, you know?”

Ewart, owner of Dead End BBQ and principal in charge of George Armour Ewart Architect, says no football could mean he’ll have to make some “hard decisions” down the road.

A 2016 Tripp Umbach/University of Tennessee study on the economic impact and community benefits shows an average football weekend has a $41.7 million impact on Knox County.

“For the restaurant, that’s about 40% of business in those three months, which is huge,” Ewart says. “We do a lot of tailgating. We are able to feed a lot of people coming to the restaurant before and after the games, especially, and it even carries over for the weekends to Sundays and coming in on Friday. We’re always extremely busy at those times because of the games and there’s eight opportunities of those traditional settings when we play eight home games in our regular season and to cut that out is going to be really hard on us.”

Morton says her liquor store income would go from bad to worse without football.

“Probably 60 or 65% of our year has been from the middle of August to the middle of December,” she explains. “So we’re not exactly as bad as a tourist area, but most businesses have to be able to survive on eight months of business. And if you take the majority of that business away from those eight months, then it’s going to be sad when you think about that. You’re taking that 65% probably down to 35%.”

The emotional impact

Tennessee football fans are some of the most fervent in the nation, on Cloud Nine when the Vols win and in the dumps over a loss. As such, the emotional toll on Knoxville could be as devastating – there’s that word, again – as the economic impact.

“I almost don’t even want to think about what the psyche of the school is going to be like if they have to cancel football,” Carmichael says with a laugh. “Because we’re a college town and because the football team is so important, it does have a psychological impact on the community.

“That’s Knoxville’s team over there, and when they win everybody’s happy and all week long, everything is rosy. They see it as kind of a validation of life within the community when the football team does well.”

Ewart says the term “college town” doesn’t fit Knoxville like it does Starkville, Mississippi, home to Mississippi State, and Oxford, home to Ole Miss.

“We’re a thriving metropolis here. We’ve got the third-largest city in the state. But there is a definite feel in the air when Tennessee loses or wins,” Ewart says. “You can definitely tell what kind of mode everybody is in that week. And you’re right. It’s always good when they win because not only is everybody happy but they want to spend more money, too.”

County Mayor Jacobs adds: “When Tennessee sports do well, it seems like our whole area is kind of more optimistic and people are really just in a better mood than when we lose.

“When the basketball team was ranked No. 1 a couple of years ago, there was a tangible feeling that something big was going on in Knox County. I think it’s the same with football. When the football team does really well, it seems like everybody’s more buoyant and everybody’s in general happier and more optimistic.”

Cavalaris says UT fans will have to find new outlets to replace their passion for football if the worst scenario hits. People will likely be spending more time on yardwork, out on the river, binge-watching TV or catching up on their reading lists.

“A lot of people have focused their entertainment not just around UT football, but on college football and professional football during the fall. And so, what do people do and how do they adjust sort of their general entertainment part and recreational part of their time without sports?” Cavalaris wonders.

“The emotional part of it for people who are really and personally involved in the sport, then it’s an even bigger issue to them. I think it’s true that … what do people talk about on Monday morning after Saturday’s football game? They’re talking about the game. Or Sunday’s game.

“It’s a big part of what the community focuses on. It’s a big part of what’s in the newspaper and what’s on the radio and television and so forth. So, no question – while the financial part is easily measurable, the other part matters a lot to people. So, yeah, it’ll be a tough fall if football is affected.”

Economics professor Fox says he enjoys going to UT games in the fall but like everyone else, he will find ways to adjust.

“I’m a tennis fan and the major tennis events have mostly been eliminated and so a little more reading and a little more work and a little bit more with Netflix is what’s been happening with me. Or Amazon Prime,” he notes.

“I think we’ve all adapted to that part as best we can, and now we’re trying to find other forms of entertainment, no question. I have a little boat; I’ve been out on it and trying to fill the time. But it requires a change in behavior for sure.”

Until something definitive is announced by the university and the SEC, we’ll put in a DVD of greatest Vol games and echo the immortal words of John Ward.

“It’s football time in Tennessee!”

Or, at least, it was.