City, merchants may face huge drop in football revenue

Northwestern University's Ryan Field (Google Maps)

With the college football season in limbo due to COVID-19, the City of Evanston officials anticipate drastic reductions in football ticket sales this fall.

In a normal year, the city receives $650,000 to $900,000 in athletics ticket tax revenue from Northwestern University games, depending on the number of home games and who the opponents are.  

This year, that could be zero. Paul Kennedy, Northwestern’s Associate Athletics Director tells Evanston Now that so far, “we are planning as if we will be playing football.”  But Ryan Field might be empty, other than the teams involved in a game and their staffs.

“We have modeled scenarios with no fans, some fans, and all fans,” Kennedy says. “The federal, state, local and [Big Ten] Conference guidance on COVID-19 will make the decision for us.” Currently Illinois is in Phase 4 of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s “Restore Illinois” plan.

Under Phase 4, outdoor spectator sports can resume with no more than 20% of capacity, but it’s by no means certain that will take place.

If the season is cancelled, or if games are played without fans, the city stands to lose more than just the 12 percent tax on each ticket. There are also sales tax revenues on sports memorabilia and other items sold in stores, hotel room taxes, liquor consumption taxes, and parking fees. City spokesman Patrick Deignan says there is no estimate yet on what that loss might add up to.

But it could be a lot, and not only for the city. Local merchants, already hit hard by COVD-19-related closings, could suffer another body-block.

“Evanston businesses are going to feel it” without football fans, says Roger Sosa, executive director of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce.

There is no official estimate of how much a Wildcats fan spends per game-day, but for comparison, Sosa says a survey of theater patrons shows $30 each on top of the cost of tickets. Football fans probably spend more, particularly out-of-towners who stay in hotels.

Hardest hit, Sosa says, would be the merchants on Central Street, near the football stadium. “Let’s Tailgate” is a sports memorabilia store on Central. Owner Cindy Gaborek says football weekends are “huge” for her -- 65% of her sales are football-related. Losing football would come on top of another revenue disaster, no in-person NU graduation this year. “It’s been very tough,” she says.

The Wildcats averaged just shy of 37,000 fans per game last season, for seven home contests. There are also seven home games scheduled for this fall, although one of them, against Wisconsin, will be played at Wrigley Field.

Ironically, Northwestern could still bring in millions of dollars to the university’s athletics budget even without a single paying fan, as long as the games are played.

Associate AD Kennedy says “broadcast rights agreements” make up a larger share of sports revenue than do ticket sales. A “USA Today” report said Northwestern and most other Big Ten teams (other than newcomers Maryland and Rutgers) each got a $54 million payout from the conference in Fiscal 2018, primarily due to television deals such as the Big Ten Network.

Of course, none of that TV money goes to Cindy Gaborek and “Let’s Tailgate.”

Northwestern is supposed to open its home football schedule against Tulane on Sept. 12.  Without real live fans showing up, Gaborek says what has so far been “the worst time” in her 23 years in business will get even worse.

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