SALT LAKE CITY — Sitting in the shadow of Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Porcupine Pub and Grill has a completely different energy on game days. Patrons often spill out onto the street, rain or shine, waiting for a seat during what floor manager Codi Winn says are by far the restaurant’s busiest days.
“It’s absolute madness,” Winn said. “Even when it’s 10 degrees outside the lobby is packed and people are outside. It’s chaos.”
Bartenders request to work game days for the tips, while the rest of the staff, many of whom are University of Utah students, revel in the energy and fandom that comes with college football. But things will be markedly different this year.
“It’s definitely a huge hit for us,” Winn said just hours after the Pac-12 announced it was canceling all fall sports, including lucrative football games, through the end of the calendar year. “That’s a lot of busy days that we’re just not going to experience this year.”
The cancellation of Pac-12 sports sent shockwaves through the sports community, but the economic impact of Tuesday’s decision will reverberate throughout Salt Lake City and Utah for months, especially in nearby bars, restaurants and hotels. It was yet another blow to businesses already reeling in the wake of the COVID-19 shutdowns of spring.
“There is no doubt the loss of PAC-12 football and fall college sports will be felt by the economy and local businesses,” said Derek Miller, CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. “Sport provides a rallying cry to our communities and brings us together to celebrate student athletes who are developing broad skills learned on and off the field. While we cannot know the full economic impact, we do know that many small businesses are already struggling and this will be an additional burden to carry.”
He hopes the understanding that this will hurt downtown businesses will encourage people to support those businesses in other ways.
“However, this challenge provides all of us another reason to engage in the economy and support our local businesses,” he said. “Like all of us living and working through the pandemic, PAC-12 officials are seeking to balance concerns and manage risks. We hope these officials can work over the next several months to develop a risk management strategy that will allow football and other sports to return in the spring.”
Bill Riley is the voice of University of Utah’s football team, and he said that even though there were rumors that the season might be canceled, he hoped officials would at least work for the next few weeks to find creative solutions to safety issues
“I think it’s always been kind of in the back of our minds,” Riley said. “I’ve been kind of the glass half full, optimistic, testing and science, people’s smarts and common sense kind of guy, and I thought we’d be in a much better place in August than we were.”
He said the conference showed signs that they were working toward playing sports this fall, even if it was a shorter season and much different type of situation.
“I felt better when they went to all conference,” Riley said. “Then two weeks ago, they rolled out that schedule, and we knew there was still a possibility it might not happen, but I kind of hoped the Pac-12 giving itself a little more time with a Sept. 26 start, would be a good thing. We could see how the numbers went, how the situation improved.”
And positive test numbers in Pac-12 states have improved. But none of them were below a 5% positive rate, which is what some medical professionals, including CDC officials, recommended to reopen schools and allow full athletic competitions.
The University of Utah’s Center for Public Policy and Administration released a report detailing the economic benefits of U. football’s move to the Pac-12 in 2012, which included doubling out-of-state attendance at Utah home football games. At the time, it was estimated that out-of-state fans spent about $2.3 million and television revenues were around $8 million.
Overall, that study found that just in 2012, Utah enjoyed an infusion of $10.3 million in revenue from out-of-state visitors derived from those Pac-12 football games.
Natalie Gochnour, associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, said this kind of study hasn’t been done recently, but it stands to reason that the economic impact of those games and those visitors “has grown since then.”
“The way economists think of something like this, we’re interested in out-of-state spending as part of those events,” she said. “That’s what they’re looking at when opposing teams come to town. How long do they stay? How much do they spend? The concept is that the economic impact is when money comes from outside Utah.”
At the University of Utah, the long lines and steady stream of game day customers will be absent from the Campus Store this fall. But Abby Hirshberg, merchandise sales manager and lead buyer, says what has been an abnormal summer prepared her staff for what will be an even more abnormal fall.
“This summer has not been like summers in the past. … There’s been far less foot traffic in general, and we’ve had to adapt,” she said. But like other area businesses, no football means the Campus Store will miss out on what Hirshberg says are her busiest days, “no question about it.”
“Basketball is huge, gymnastics too, but football is definitely the top revenue generator,” she said. “Absolutely sales are already down. I think we’re all in the same boat in that regard.”
Economic impact aside, the general mood around the University of Utah campus Tuesday was somber. Students, university staff and community members alike were coping with the sad reality of the lost 2020 college football season, a sentiment best summed up by Winn.
“We’re bummed for two reasons. Bummed because money, you know, if you want to make some money, those are the shifts you go for. But on the other side, a lot of us are U. students. So that’s a whole season where we don’t have school sports.”