The decision to play, delay or postpone the college football season has become a political football, with President Donald Trump, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, coaches and student-athletes including Baylor University quarterback Charlie Brewer weighing in.
But regardless of the Big 12 conference’s decision, Waco businesses catering to game day crowds are unlikely to see a windfall this year.
While the Big 10, Pac-12, Mountain West and Mid-American conferences have canceled, or potentially postponed, their seasons, officials from the country’s other conferences are meeting this week under the shadow of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to decide the fate of the season.
Big 12 representatives, including those from Baylor, discussed the dilemma Tuesday night in a conference call. Despite some reporting, citing anonymous sources, that the conference would continue preparing for an adjusted season, conference officials had not announced any decision by press time Tuesday night.
The league was widely expected to release a schedule soon with each team playing nine conference games and one nonconference game.
No matter what college officials decide, even a limited season with 25% to 50% stadium seating capacities, scaled-down, if any, pregame festivities, and fans reluctant to travel and book hotels have businesses already reeling from coronavirus effects ratcheting down expectations for major economic boosts normally generated by college football weekends.
Julie Keith, fourth-generation owner of Vitek’s in Waco, said on most days Baylor is playing at home, her barbecue business is bustling, filled with Baylor alumni clamoring for the Gut Packs they remember eating during their college days.
“They haven’t canceled the season yet, and we are just rolling with the punches right now,” Keith said. “You just have to adapt to this new world and make changes. Right now, we are in survival mode.”
Sammy Citrano’s George’s restaurants entertain large crowds on game days and sponsor a large “party zone” tailgating tent across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from McLane Stadium.
Citrano said he is hoping Baylor and the Big 12 decide to play this season, but said even if they do, he is considering not setting up the party zone because of health concerns.
“At 25%, people wearing masks all the time, it would be hard to manage,” he said. “If they cancel the season, even if they have a season, it definitely would be detrimental to our business. People like to come out to escape and be with their friends. We need something positive to happen, and hopefully, that is football. But safety first. Always safety first.”
Citrano, whose business has dropped off about 30% during the pandemic, said George’s is catering lunches and dinner for the Baylor football team this week. Because of COVID-19, he has altered his catering style from open food trays and serving lines to preparing meals in individual serving containers, a move that is more expensive and more labor-intensive, he said.
“This is the only catering business we have had for a while,” Citrano said. “It’s good to get a few people back to work.”
Trump, Abbott and many players, including Baylor’s Brewer, have said they support playing this fall. Economists and others said canceling football would devastate local businesses that rely on increased income generated by home games.
“Forgoing even a single game costs the economy millions,” Waco economist Ray Perryman told The Texas Tribune. “Dealing with the health crisis is essential and must be given paramount priority, but the economic costs of restricting or eliminating college sports are very high.”
According to a 2013 study, Baylor athletics had a $373.3 million impact on Waco’s economy. Yet while the food and hospitality industries would be hit hard, their losses would not devastate Waco’s $14 billion economy, Waco City Manager Bradley Ford told The Texas Tribune.
“If we weren’t gonna have football this year or had significantly lower attendance, certainly, you’ll see some of that ripple through the local economy and tourism and restaurants and things of that nature,” he was quoted as saying. “But it won’t be what I would deem a ‘substantial hit’ to the local economy.”
Perryman, who helped conduct the 2013 study, told The Texas Tribune that visitor spending leads to “in excess of $25 million in gross product each year in the Waco area and over 337 full-time equivalent jobs when multiplier effects are considered.”
Big 12’s ‘continue dialogue’
Baylor President Linda Livingstone said Tuesday that she looks forward to the Big 12’s “continued dialogue” among presidents and chancellors, and officials are not under a prescribed timeline to make a decision.
“Football is such an important part of Baylor’s on-campus experience each fall,” Livingstone said. “It provides a sense of excitement and community for our students, faculty and staff, as well as means of connection for our alumni and friends. And, of course, the impact on the Waco community is significant in so many ways.
“As a former student-athlete, I always want to compete, and I know our Baylor student-athletes are eager to play this season. With that said, we also want to provide a safe competitive environment for our student-athletes, coaches and fans who visit McLane Stadium. I continue to be impressed with the health and safety measures implemented by (Athletics Director) Mack Rhoades and his staff over the summer months and as they prepare for the start of the football season.”
City ‘will feel it’
The loss of thousands of visitors to Waco on Baylor home football game weekends would hit hard after a spring and summer of COVID-19 shutdowns and limited capacity, said Todd Bertka, Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau director.
“Football is a big deal in a football town, and Waco is a football town. It’s a big deal but not the only deal,” Bertka said. “The downtown core hotels will feel it. Restaurants will feel it. Retail shops will feel it.”
Baylor alumnus Kary Lalani, whose family company owns the Homewood Suites by Hilton and the Hilton Garden Inn at Legends Crossing in Waco, said he definitely is pushing for Baylor to maintain its football schedule this season.
“As a fan, as an alum, as a hotelier, the city of Waco desperately needs the economic impact that college football brings to our market,” Lalani said. “We would be really disappointed if it is canceled. We look forward to having our returning guests and Baylor alum and opposing teams stay in our properties. Between September and November is our busiest time of the year.
“With football, and particularly when these games are broadcast on TV, with the amount of production crew members and personnel and operating crew, that all generates money for our community. They spend money in our hotels, in our restaurants, in our bars. That is a major economic force for this area.”
News of the possible loss of college football in the fall comes after weeks of Waco hotels’ slow recovery from spring closures to check the spread of COVID-19. The city’s hotel room occupancy rate, which once pushed 80% two years ago, had plummeted to the 30% range by June before edging into the 40% range by late last month as closed hotels reopened.
Two weeks ago, the occupancy rate topped 60%.
“We’ve gone from measuring (the rate) from month over month to week over week,” Bertka said. “It’s that acute.”
Should Baylor football disappear on fall weekends, Bertka hopes regional tourism and local residents can pick up the slack.
“We will backfill as best we can,” he said. “Football or not, Waco still enjoys advantages of a central location; attractions such as Cameron Park, Cameron Park Zoo and the Brazos River; and the shopping magnet of Magnolia Market at the Silos,” he said.
Will Phipps, executive director of the Greater Waco Sports Commission, said the commission’s mission is to bring sporting events to Waco because of their considerable economic contribution. Weekends with Baylor home games generally land in Waco’s top 10 weekends each year in terms of hotel room occupancy and tourist traffic, he said.
“To not have those games would be a significant blow to the local economy,” Phipps said. “There are no easy choices. It’s a lose-lose for everyone, but no one wants to jeopardize anyone’s health or well-being.”
Losing collegiate football would be the latest in a string of canceled sporting events and tournaments in Waco. Beginning in March, COVID-19 shutdowns and precautions have canceled Baylor University and McLennan Community College spring sports, the Silo District Marathon and summer softball and baseball tournaments and championships, among others.
In addition to collegiate and secondary school football, the Waco fall sports calendar also has a half-Ironman triathlon scheduled for October, with school volleyball and cross-country championships penciled in for October and November.
Phipps said he hopes officials making the decision on whether to hold fall sports will allow organizers a chance to do so with all necessary safeguards.
“We can find a way to do this,” he said.