As the game begins, thousands of Auburn fans create a wave of brilliant orange as they tramp behind coaches in the Tiger Walk to the 87, 451-seat Jordan-Hare Stadium. In Tuscaloosa, a sea of houndstooth hats and jackets march the Elephant Stomp to the 101, 821-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium.
From the viewpoint of many, it’s cash flow—a tidal wave of revenue that keeps cash registers ringing far beyond the campus confines.
According to Daniel Fulks, an accounting professor at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., a leading authority on college sports finances who prepares the NCAA’s Revenues and Expenses Reports, football is the only college sport that makes money. At schools like Auburn and Alabama, it’s big money, and not just for the schools.
Just as Colorado ski towns depend on snow and the Gulf Coast on oil-free beaches, the financial health of the cities of Auburn and Tuscaloosa depends largely on game days. That’s when crowds arrive ready to spend cash on everything from bourbon, beer coolers and barbecue to hotel rooms at double and triple-inflated rates.
No Room at the Inn
It’s early summer and already George Postell, owner of the Crenshaw Guest House, is nearly sold out for the 2012 football season. His 120-year-old Victorian B & B, a short walk from downtown Auburn, has only three rooms left, and those for the weekend of the out-of-conference Alabama A & M game. On football weekends, his normal rates of $99 to $135 jump up to $249 to $319, with a two-night minimum. “Game day weekends are the only times I raise my rates, ” says Postell, a 1975 Auburn University graduate.
At the Hampton Inn in Auburn, rates increase from $79-$149 to $300, and like most hotels, require a minimum two-night stay. A little closer to the stadium is the Holiday Inn Express, where rates jump from $90-$109 to $329 for the Georgia game. A few miles away in neighboring Opelika rates are slightly lower, even at the Marriott at Grand National resort where rooms are priced at $229 to $289 a night during the 2012 football season.
If you were able to reserve a room in Tuscaloosa for the Auburn-Alabama game Nov. 24, you’d pay $379 at the Country Inn & Suites. At Microtel Inn & Suites Tuscaloosa-University, rooms are a relative bargain at $245-$255 a night (for any game), but there’s a long waiting list and a 30-day prior cancellation policy.
Game day weekend rates at the stately Hotel Capstone on the University of Alabama campus are $360-$425 a night, up from the usual $115-$130.
RV parks offer a more affordable alternative. Annette Parker manages Sunset RV Parks, with four campgrounds in the Tuscaloosa area catering to Tide Pride regulars, some who stay the entire football season. Rates for the whole season are $1, 475, compared to $1, 875 two years ago. “With so many raising their rates, we did the opposite, ” says Parker. “We want our people coming back.” A single-night stay on a game day weekend is $50; on non-game weekends $32.
“We’re slam full on game weekends, ” says Thomas Sparrow, owner of Auburn RV Park, located in the city limits close enough to the stadium to offer free shuttle service. Sparrow says his revenues increase 30 to 40 percent on game weekends, but he has to hire more help. His game rates are $65 a night, compared to $35 on non-game days.
When rates and occupancy increase, so does the hotel tax that Auburn and Tuscaloosa receive. Lodging tax collections for the city of Tuscaloosa for the 2011 football season totalled a little over $1.2 million. (This figure reflects the large number of people living in temporary lodging after the April 2011 tornado). The city of Auburn during that period collected $440, 409.
Champagne, Momma’s Love and Buffalo Wings
No game day experience is complete without plenty of food and drinks. Auburn and Tuscaloosa restaurants, bars, grocery stores and liquor stores rely on increased sales during football season.
ESPN sportscasters mentioned Buffalo Phil’s Wings as one of the best places to eat in Tuscaloosa. Located a block from the stadium, general manager Craig
Williams says he has to stock more food and drinks on game days and put his entire staff to work.
“Football season is definitely our busiest time, ” says Doug Nelson, owner of Tuscaloosa’s Houndstooth, rated the No. 1 sports bar in the country by Sports Illustrated. Fans pack the Houndstooth on both home and away games. And if the stadium is too hot some leave at half time to finish watching the game at the bar, where there’s air conditioning and shorter bathroom lines.
George Spence, co-owner of Hamilton’s restaurant in downtown Auburn, says he does four to five times more business on a game day Saturday and three times more business on the Friday before a game. He says kick off time factors into his game day earnings. A game that starts at 2 p.m. brings in both the lunch and dinner crowd. If a game begins at 6 p.m., seats remain empty during the profitable dinner hours.
A visit to Auburn isn’t complete without stopping at Momma Goldberg’s for a Momma’s Love, the deli’s signature sandwich, which accounts for about 65 percent of its food sales. “When people think of Auburn, they think football and Momma Goldberg’s, ” says Stewart Williams, manager of the original location, a short walk from the stadium, which opened in 1976. Sales there jump 900 percent on football Saturdays, says general manager Mark Cooley.
Z & Z Tobacco & Spirits opened in Auburn last October near the end of football season, yet owner Zulifikar Ali says his best earnings to date were during that short period. He expects brisk business again this football season, selling much of what he did last year — whiskey, bourbon and plastic disposable flasks, along with lots of miniature liquor bottles, the size served on airplanes.
While champagne might not seem like a popular game day drink, manager John Moore of Kroger in Auburn says bottles fly off the shelves along with orange juice, for mixing mimosas. Other top selling items are beer, tea and giant message cookies with War Eagle! written in blue and orange icing. Kroger florists stay busy making game day-inspired arrangements, such as centerpieces using ice buckets with the AU logo.
“The Friday before a Saturday game, we have a 50 to 60 percent increase in sales compared to a typical Friday, ” says Moore. Corey Hayes, assistant manager at one of Auburn’s two Publix stores, says game days increase sales by 50 percent.
Bryant-Denny Stadium can be seen from South’s Finest Meats and Vegetables, and many tailgaters stop in to purchase fresh meats for grilling—everything from hamburger and wings to bratwurst and kielbasa. On a home game day, manager Bill Ferguson says business increases by 15 to 20 percent. South’s is also a wholesale supplier to UA’s fraternity and sorority houses, and on game days, total retail and wholesale sales increase by about 35 percent.
Houndstooth Trilbys and Mum Corsages
Men wore coats and ties to football games in 1962 when Pat Cross opened Pat’s Florist in Tuscaloosa. Women wore dresses, silk stockings and corsages, and even fur coats if the weather was chilly enough. “Back then, I made hundreds of mum corsages for game days, but today there’s no place to pin a corsage, ” observes Cross, 77, who created the casket spray of 2, 000 red carnations for Bear Bryant’s 1983 funeral.
Despite the slump in mum corsages, game days still increase their business by about 25 percent the Friday before a game, says her son Darron, who today manages the store. Game day weekends now involve making floral arrangements for hotels, stadium skybox sections and fraternity and sorority game-related festivities. They also sell gourmet and gift items, including game-themed cookies by Chrissie Schubert, daughter of Sissy Schubert, who founded Sister Schubert’s Rolls in Troy.
Stanley Sistrunk, a longtime Auburn florist, also remembers when fans dressed up for games. Though today’s customers are no longer decked out in their Sunday finest, they still regularly visit The Flower Store, Sistrunk’s florist and high-end gift shop in Auburn, where merchandise includes $300 dinner plates carried by Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. “Lots of Christmas shopping is done here during game days, ” he says. “We wish for hot or rainy weather, so the ladies will shop instead of going to the game.”
The Locker Room, a men’s and women’s clothier that moved to its block-from-Bryant-Denny location in 1967, just three years after it opened, sees sales jump 70 percent on game day Saturdays when a quarter of the crowd walks past the store, says co-owner Rush Crawford.
The Locker Room carries officially licensed team apparel, its own line of elephant wear, and houndstooth jackets, ties, belts, suits and fedoras.
Textbooks have been the mainstay of downtown Auburn’s J & M Bookstore since it opened in 1952, but, with the advent of e-textbooks, the store has focused more on team apparel, AU memorabilia and tailgating supplies. At the end of a game day, owner and CEO Trey Johnston will often say, “We had a great month of sales today.” Johnston was a kicker for Auburn’s football team in 1972-1973, and his brother Skip was a punter.
When Crimson Tide fans and alumni want a special tailgating experience, many call Game Day Tents. Founded in 2007, the Tuscaloosa company provides basic tailgating setup to high-end packages that include linens, flowers, TV and satellite service, outdoor carpet and lockable coolers. “Game Day Tents is 100 percent game day oriented, ” explains co-owner Sam Brewer. “On game weekends, we start before sunrise on Friday and practically work around the clock until takedown is completed Sunday afternoon.”
Impact on City Governments
Auburn and Tuscaloosa each has its own distinct identity as a high-profile college football town. Yet both benefit from having football seasons that add value to the city’s brand and bring in tourism dollars. Both cities are responsible for certain tasks necessary to ensure safe and orderly game days.
In Auburn, the fall 2010 football season generated about $6 million in sales tax revenue. (Spring 2011 sales tax revenue was approximately $5 million). Auburn’s public works department installs and maintains game day traffic signs. The environmental services department cleans up downtown intersections, sidewalks, the city parking deck and rights of way after a game. Game-related cleanup costs the city about $32, 000 in overtime annually.
Auburn Police Division coordinates law enforcement personnel for game days, which includes about 12 law enforcement agencies. The city averages about $15, 000 in police and fire overtime pay per game. There is a low volume of ticketing and towing parked vehicles on game days, unless they are creating a traffic or safety hazard. Clearing Auburn’s post-game traffic takes law enforcement about 1 to 1 ½ hours.
“Game day is simply a fact of life in Auburn. It gives us a chance to show Auburn hospitality to visitors from other cities, ” observes Auburn Mayor Bill Ham. “So I think it’s positive for the community, and certainly a boon to local stores, hotels and restaurants, all of which can only be good for the city.”
In Tuscaloosa, the 2011 tax revenue for the fall football season totaled about $8 million. It costs the city about $4, 500 to clean up after each game. Police overtime/compensatory time per game is approximately $61, 000. It typically takes 2 ½ to 3 hours to clear traffic after a game, but took 4 ½ hours for the LSU game last year. The city takes in about $2, 000 per game in fines for illegally parked vehicles.
Like Ham, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox believes the benefits of game days extend well beyond their “tremendous impact” on local businesses. “We always look forward to transforming into Alabama’s largest city several weekends each fall.”
U Take on a Crimson Game Day
The University of Alabama provided these figures for a typical Game Day in Tuscaloosa.
Ticket Sales: $5, 500, 421 (on a typical 2011 game day)
Tailgates at the Quad: 950 sites, where a 10×10 tent rents for $795 a season, or about $130, 380 per day
Presidential Park: Vendors pay $35, 000 per season to set up tents on this site
RV Parking on Campus: $268, 500 per season
Team Gear for Fans: $85, 000 at the SUPe Store
Skyboxes: $6.3 million per season
Extra Security Cost: $131, 468 inside stadium, plus $616, 722 for extra security outside the stadium
Stadium Clean-up: $56, 455
Crimson Ride game shuttle service: $143, 778
Line Item Millions
According to the University of Alabama and Auburn University athletic departments, the overall profit for all its sports programs in 2011 was about $4 million for UA and about $3.5 million for AU. Figures in the charts below are taken from the 2011 reports prepared by the universities in compliance with the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act.
Football total operating revenue: $76, 227, 804
Football ticket sales: $27, 598, 702
Football game day expenses: $2, 328, 806
*Football contributions: $27, 126, 569
Football equipment, uniforms and supplies: $1, 196, 399
Football broadcast, TV, radio and Internet rights: $4, 140, 000
**Football direct facilities, maintenance and rental: $3, 903, 972
Football total operating expenses: $39, 069, 675
*amounts received directly from individuals, corporations, associations, foundations and clubs
** building and grounds maintenance, utilities, rental fees, operating leases, equipment repair and maintenance and debt service
University of Alabama:
Football total operating revenue: $78, 285, 095
Football ticket sales: $29, 278, 884
Football game day expenses: $1, 933, 734
Football contributions: $18, 458, 891
Football equipment, uniforms and supplies: $1, 205, 902
Football broadcast, TV radio and Internet rights: $5, 680, 302
Football direct facilities, maintenance and rental: $2, 099, 541
Football total operating expenses: $31, 807, 880
Jessica Armstrong is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Auburn.
By Jessica Armstrong