The harsh realities of trickle-down economics of college football in and around the city of Tempe is slowly becoming realized as the annual boost to local coffers will not be coming this fall.
On Aug. 11 it became official Arizona State University football will be postponed this season with hopes to play in the spring, leaving the city of Tempe --- mom-and-pop shops along with corporate behemoths --- facing an unprecedented financial obstacle to overcome.
Brian McCartin, president and CEO at the Tempe Tourism Office expressed his disappointment of recent news surrounding fall football in Tempe while still understanding the decision.
“It was unfortunate to hear the PAC-12 had postponed all fall sports especially in light of the fact the tourism industry has already been reeling due to the effects of COVID-19,” he said. “While it is disappointing news, we support their decision as the safety of ASU students, sports fans, and our community are most important.”
City officials report they were hopeful ASU football would help them both return to a sense of normal, both on the economic and economic fronts.
“It’s certainly been six challenging and difficult months,” Mr. McCartin said. “Many businesses have closed – some temporarily and some permanently. Thousands have been furloughed or laid off. Lots of uncertainty.”
Although this has been like nothing the municipality has seen before, officials say they will continue to use the downtime to build new synergies within ranks.
“While this challenge may be unprecedented, we have come through difficult times before. Tempe is a community that pulls together and supports one another – something that is evident through this challenge as well,” Mr. McCartin added.
Chief Strategy Officer for Downtown Tempe, Lori Foster, helped paint the picture of what the streets of Tempe look like on a typical game day.
“On game days, the bustling streets are filled with the color of maroon and gold, patios are filled to capacity and all parking lots are full. The energy downtown is exciting,” Ms. Foster recalled a time before the novel coronavirus.
For businesses in Tempe --- both food industry and retail --- after reeling from a tough spring and a slow summer, missing out on game days could be the knockout punch in their respective fights to stay open.
“For many merchants, five or six home games provide the funds to pay a year’s worth of rent. Merchants depend on a strong spring season, including spring training to get them through the slower summertime,” Ms. Foster said. “This year, with COVID-19, the spring season was cut short, followed by a terrible summer and now into a slow fall without football and many fall events. It’s a gut punch.”
--- Lori Foster
Although there are no conclusive studies to see just how impactful the postponement will be, the average overnight visitor to Tempe spends $299 per trip and the average day visitor spends $68. With a seating capacity of about 53,000, the numbers begin to show the hit Tempe is facing financially.
For the food industry, it’s not just the home games that generate revenue. People tend to congregate --- in smaller crowds --- to watch even the away games together in support of their teams.
Fat Tuesdays’ General Manager Chad Wilford knows what the extent of not having college football does to business.
“Football is a huge revenue generator for downtown businesses,” he said. “Not having college football is devastating to our fall tourist season.”
Fat Tuesday is at 680 S. Mill Ave. No. 106 in downtown Tempe.
While in the middle of the side effects caused by COVID-19, restaurants such as Fat Tuesday started to see the upcoming football season as a saving grace.
“The pandemic has left us in a situation with a business that thrives on social activity in a world that prohibits socializing. Being forced to close twice for two months at a time is hard. Hiring and training new staff, wasting food, losing revenue every time we have to close is expensive,” Mr. Wilford said.
With just 50% capacity being allowed for Fat Tuesday to operate, Mr. Wilford opened up about just how much the company has lost and expects to lose given the postponement of the football season.
“We lost half of our spring training business in March. We lost all our fall college football revenue. I haven’t lost any fans that come to watch the games on TV yet because I haven’t been able to let them in anyway,” he explained.
“We are now open at 50% capacity with dine in service. It is hard to pay the bills with 50% of the revenue.”
The postponement wasn’t forgiving to the retail businesses such as Cactus Sports, 514 S. Mill Ave.
Although General Manager Troy Scoma was anticipating the football decision, he was still holding out hope that they could be bailed out and the season would still go on.
“We expected it --- I know it’s not safe to play but it still wasn’t fun news to take in,” Mr. Scoma said.
He already anticipated the large revenue loss from the lack of a football season, Mr. Scoma points out. But when all fall sports were postponed the losses Cactus Sports seem insurmountable.
“Losing 36% of spring training and the rest of basketball season was huge. Our losses in March and April were over 70% down from last year. Our ASU basketball team was expected to make the tournament and our baseball team was pre-season ranked,” Mr. Scoma said.
Cactus Sports is doing all they can to stay afloat, Mr. Scoma contends.
“We are numb to it honestly. At this point it’s fight or flight, and closing down isn’t an option,” he said.
It’s not in my DNA. Next year begins our 30th year and I have a huge legacy that we’ve worked so hard for. It’s something I’m so extremely proud of, and I’m one of the lucky people that still enjoys going to work every day. You just put your head down and keep grinding so we can stay afloat and eventually move closer to normalcy.”
Because one in 14 Tempe jobs were sustained by tourism, the loss of the football season is going to impact hotels, bars, restaurants and local shops.
“ASU football weekends are fun, and the energy they create is amazing, Mr. McCartin said. “The economic impact that game weekends have on our community is very positive and vitally important to our local businesses and to the thousands of people whose jobs are sustained by tourism.”
But Mr. McCartin reminds we are all in this together.
“In all reality, it’s probably going to take several things all coming together in order to bring those back. All I know is that it’s vitally important that we figure that out and I have all the confidence we will,” McCartin said.
Independent Newsmedia Tempe reporter Benjamin Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org