Steve Mirza has been waiting for this for almost two years. Mirza manages Campus Gear downtown, as well as The Locker Room across from Ryan Field where the Northwestern University Wildcats play football.

The last time any large number of fans bought t-shirts, hats, and other Wildcat memorabilia from those stores was on Nov. 23, 2019.

That was the last home game before COVID-19 struck, and turned the 2020 season into a nearly fan-less experience, with 47,000 empty seats at Ryan Field due to coronavirus-related limits. Only a handful of players’ relatives were allowed at the stadium.

But Friday night, Northwestern opens the 2021 Big Ten season at home, against Michigan State, with what could be a full house, stomping and cheering. Crowd size regulations are gone. Masks are not required at this outdoor event, although with the COVID delta variant on the rise, masking is a potential option if the situation worsens as the season goes on.

Hopes are high for on-the-field performance this fall, and for off-the-field dollars and cents as well.

“It’s very good, very busy right now,” Mirza says, at the Campus Gear store.

Last year, Mirza says, “was horrible.” But today, there was even a group of Michigan State fans who “walked in to the store. They were impressed with our inventory,” he adds.

Fans like that not only buy souvenirs, but have to eat, and yes, football fans have also been known to tip a beverage or two. Depending on where they’re from, they might stay in hotels as well.

The city does not figure out how much liquor tax, parking fees, and sales tax is directly attributable to Northwestern football, but this season will certainly be way above last year.

The city does quantify Athletic Contest Tax revenue, which a spokesperson says is generally from $800,000 to $1 million per football season.

In 2019, for example, the amount was $1.2 million. That plummeted to only $200,000 in 2020.

And, of course, the better Northwestern does on the field, the more people will want to attend. And the more tickets sold, the more ticket tax revenue the city takes in.

And also, the more hats the fans buy from Steve Mirza.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.