Penn State football holds a local economy on its shoulders. What happens if the season never comes?
By Aaron Kasinitz/PennLive
Before a pandemic upended life across the globe, the general manager at The Shandygaff in State College had no trouble forecasting the bar’s busiest days each year. Spikes in sales became easy to predict.
“It’s the football weekends in the fall,” Mitchell Caffyn said. “I’m sure if you talk to any bar owner or bar manager in the area they’d tell you the same thing. We just get such an influx of people coming into town.”
Penn State football home games transform Centre County from a string of quiet, rural communities into a bustling hub of economic activity that attracts hordes of visitors. For six to eight weekends each fall, restaurants fill up. Cars pack the roads. Blue and white-clad fans trot through the streets or pile into the 106,000-seat Beaver Stadium.
But this year, the coronavirus will threaten those traditions and the livelihood of people who depend on them.
It’s not just that a sports season sits in jeopardy. The Nittany Lions in many ways serve as the lifeblood of the local economy, according to experts and data. A return to action in the fall could infuse a much-needed boost to area businesses in the same way a disrupted season could further bludgeon restaurants and stores already crippled by a pandemic.
Though the scheduled start of college football remains months away, two viral disease experts told PennLive they are skeptical a 2020 football season could open on time — if at all. Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour said her staff has begun studying contingency plans if social distancing guidelines related to the coronavirus persist until the fall.
The stakes for businesses around State College, residents and the future of the school are sky-high.
“I think anybody here would be nervous about a disrupted football season,” Caffyn said.
Unlike most cities where NBA or MLB teams play, State College isn’t a major metropolitan area with a large airport or nationally renowned tourist attractions. Football brings crowds to the area.
“If you were to look at it as a resort community, there’s a peak season and there’s an off-season,” said Dave Gerdes, the director of sales and marketing at the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau. “And without a doubt, football season is peak season for everybody here.”
That leaves businesses in State College and the surrounding areas facing a unique opportunity to rebound from coronavirus-related losses. A typical fall slate of football games could pour money, visitors and pride into the community and local economy, business leaders say.
Yet a canceled season could force a region to try and climb to its feet without its backbone.
‘They rely on those football Saturdays’
Gerdes has a view of Beaver Stadium from his office window, and he often stares and admires the image of a massive, region-defining venue sitting empty. When it’s full, the attendance at Penn State home games outnumbers the population of every city in the state except for three: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Allentown.
Statistics reveal the effect those games and those fans have on the local economy.
In an average year, PSU’s seven home football weekends make up 16 percent of annual room revenue across Centre County, according to the Adventure Bureau.
In total, visitors spent $794.2 million in the county in 2017 — more than double the amount in any of the surrounding counties in the Alleghenies — and the local tourism industry supported more than 5,000 jobs, according to a study conducted by Tourism Economics. Nittany Lions football is by far the main draw for visitors, Gerdes said. It makes Centre County different from nearby areas that attract far fewer travelers.
Jeremy Jordan, the associate dean of Temple’s School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management, said restaurants and hotels in a town like State College can build their businesses around an anticipated surge of customers on home football weekends.
“The people from outside of State College that come into town for the game that stay at hotels and drink at bars and buy merchandise, all of that is significant for the town,” Jordan said. “The small towns and the schools, they rely on those football Saturdays.”
Cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh serve as home to multiple professional sports teams and host major concerts, festivals and conventions. Meanwhile, smaller towns with powerhouse football programs — from State College to Starkville, Mississippi, to Clemson, South Carolina — have a rare dependence on those sports teams.
“There’s no other event that brings 100,000 people to State College, to your community for a weekend or at least for a couple days,” Jordan said.
And as it does for many schools, the football team keeps Penn State’s athletic budget afloat.
During the 2018-19 school year, football directly accounted for $100.1 million of the department’s $164.5 million in revenue. While most other Penn State sports cost more money to operate than they bring in, the football team’s expenses landed at less than $49 million.
That means PSU football made the school about $51 million between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019.
In total, the athletic department’s revenues came in $13.4 million higher than its expenses. Without money from football, the department would’ve been more than $37 million in the red.
Those numbers represent a typical year, though. Current circumstances are far from normal, with the government leveling stay-at-home orders and the NCAA nixing sporting events through the rest of the 2019-20 school year.
Barbour said Penn State has to be prepared to adjust in case football does not return in the fall. Playing in the spring is an option, according to Barbour, because it’s worth finding creative solutions to salvage an enterprise like a football season that carries great weight for a region.
“It’s in everyone’s best interests when it’s safe and right to do so that we play a football season,” Barbour said on a video conference last week. “We’ve already talked about the emotional and moral piece for communities across this country and then certainly, obviously, there’s a financial and a revenue piece to it.”
‘The last things to come back’
At this point, Barbour has not called for postponements or cancellations to football games. And the Adventure Bureau is moving forward in hopes that the season arrives without disruption, Gerdes said.
Brian DeHaven, an assistant professor of biology at La Salle who specializes in the study of viral diseases, said he’d love to see football return in 2020. He attended Michigan as an undergrad and marched in the drumline during two Rose Bowl parades.
Still, he sees many daunting obstacles standing in front of a typical football season.
While DeHaven said authorities could lift social restrictions over the summer if preventative measures against the spread of the coronavirus begin to work, it’d take strong evidence for those in power to greenlight the travel and gatherings necessary to hold college football games. Doctors would have to see improvements in testing and the near elimination of community spread before they could feel comfortable about the return of the mass gatherings.
“I love sports as well, but I think these types of things are going to be some of the last things to come back, because they are so huge,” DeHaven said.
“So is there going to be a football season? I don’t know,” Sweet said. “I see that it could be a little bit longer than certainly July or August that we could meet face-to-face like that.”
Canceled games could leave places like The Shandygaff missing out on their most lucrative crowds. Caffyn said he’s comforted by the fact that many of his employees are Penn State students who don’t rely on their jobs as a permanent source of income — many returned home to live with their parents during the coronavirus outbreak.
But for Caffyn and a “couple other older guys” at The Shandygaff, it’ll sting to miss out on tips and wages over the next few weeks or months. The vision of football season and a stream of fans piling through the bar’s doors can ease the pain.
“Obviously, what we’ve lost, we’ve lost,” Caffyn said. “But if everything goes as planned, and football is back, that would be a huge boost.”
The Shandygaff is a popular bar on a crowded College Avenue strip just off Penn State’s University Park campus. It’s typically open for late-night drinks and hosts karaoke once a week. Football Saturdays are the only days when The Shandygaff is open before 7 p.m.
State College legend suggests the bar has been operational since 1848, though it’s exact origins aren’t known. The Shandygaff is closed now due to government orders related to the coronavirus, but Caffyn insisted it would reopen as soon as possible — a bar this storied, he said, can hold up through a pandemic.
Penn State football is almost as old as The Shandygaff. The Lions have held games each fall since at least 1895, and many State College businesses would enter new territory if Beaver Stadium remains empty.
For now, beloved establishments like Champs Sports Grill, The Original Waffle Shop and Local Whisky are grappling with sudden and stark changes. Without students on campus, customers in State College are sparse. Many hotels have shut down and restaurants have closed their doors, shifting to takeout models.
“We’re trying to help our businesses find ways to figure this out and get support,” Gerdes said. “Those small, locally-owned businesses are really the heart of Centre County.”
And football season often props them up. Beyond infusing money into the economy, football gives the community spirit, spunk and liveliness, Gerdes said. Once business owners and customers dust themselves off from the initial shock of the coronavirus restrictions, they can look ahead and wonder whether fall will serve as an avenue toward hope or another devastating blow.
In State College, nothing quite matches the power of football season.
“Sports, for a large portion of society, holds significance for various reasons. So to have this back as maybe an indication of a return to some form of normalcy is also significant,” Jordan said. “And not having football, if we’re still in some level of this by then, it would be a gut punch.”