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Thursday, January 27, 2022

The Paper Trail: Even in down year, UF football boosts local businesses

At the corner of University Avenue and NW 13th Street, inside the Holiday Inn, on a lime green chair in the lobby, sits Kim Layton, class of ’85. Kim is a former military brat, moved around a lot as a kid, came to UF in part because no one knew her. She stayed in town 13 years.

Now, she works as a paralegal outside Atlanta, but she owns season tickets. She is in Gainesville today to see Florida play Furman with her husband, Skip, and another couple. Last night, they ate at Leonardo’s Pizza. They also shopped at the UF Bookstore in the Reitz Union.

Kim shopped for her brother, Scott, an alumnus and a Phi Delta Theta. Her sister, Tamara, was a Delta Delta Delta. Kim was a Phi Mu. She and Skip picked up car decorations, shirts and Christmas ornaments. Every time she is in town, Kim shops.

“You’ve got to,” she says.

Kim, 48, is a pale woman with glasses and short, auburn hair. She is wearing a blue-and-white checkered button down with a small Gators logo on the chest.

“You gotta come down and see all the old buildings and feel connected to the school. We’re still connected.”

Those ties, pulling thousands of alumni back to Gainesville for a handful of weekends each year, provide a boost to local businesses, even when the economy is down, even when the Gators are worse.

In 2009, home football games generated about $106 million in the economy, according to a study by UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Football doesn’t create nearly as much money as the university’s healthcare services or day-to-day operations do, both of which generate north of $2 billion annually. But those things go on all year. Football is for seven weekends.

The team’s 6-5 record has suspended interest and, to a degree, sales, though the extent of that affect is only subjective.

Early afternoon games lead to less money, as do opponents from college football’s cellar. If Florida is playing at noon, a lot of fans will drive to and from Gainesville on Saturday rather than stay at a hotel, which often demands customers pay for two nights, says John Pricher, tourism development director for Alachua County Visitors and Convention Bureau. 

The Swamp Restaurant saw significantly less customers for last Saturday’s 1 p.m. game than it normally does, office manager Israel Mendez said. And of 24 hotels called, including the Holiday Inn, only the 36-room Reitz Union Hotel was booked 10 days before the FSU game.

Still, football season is busier than any other time. Among those 24 hotels, the median cost for a room with two beds for Saturday’s game against Florida State is $189 — an 82 percent hike from a non-football weekend.

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And even though sellouts have been inconsistent this year, fan support has not fallen off dramatically: average attendance has only dropped 2 percent compared with the previous two seasons. Some business owners say the team’s performance isn’t as important as the time of the game — Florida hasn’t played a primetime home game since its Oct. 1 clash with Alabama. This Saturday’s game kicks off at 7 p.m.

But regardless of the time, regardless of Florida’s record, regardless of the attendance drop and fan expectations and the opponent, game days are still better than any other Saturday.

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It is a little after 10 a.m., and while Kim chats in the Holiday Inn lobby, Troop 614 Scoutmaster Jason Chamberlain directs cars into the open lot on the other side of 13th Street. Chamberlain and a group of volunteers in matching orange shirts are selling spots for $20 each, with proceeds going to the local boy scouts chapter. On an average game day, they sell 450 spots.

Going west on University Avenue, about 10 people pace back and forth for three blocks, tickets held above their heads. Open-market scalping laws have been in place in Florida since 2006. Standing in front of the Gator Wesley Center, two men hold signs advertising tickets for sale. A group of five fans walk by. Nobody takes the bait.

“Too many motherf***** seats today,” says an old white man in calf-high tube socks, muddy New Balances and a trucker hat.

“I still got six,” a bulky black man in dreadlocks and sunglasses replies.

Three blocks over, at the Florida Book Store across from Keene-Flint Hall, DJ Eff-150 from 100.5 The Buzz is roasting Furman fans from atop the store’s overhang while “Can’t Stop” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers plays.

Fridays on game weekends are twice as profitable as on other weekends, assistant store manager Taryn Emswiler says, Sundays three times as much. Saturdays, of course, are the busiest days.

In the parking lot to the left, Beth Romano and her mother, Sue Montgomery, sit behind three tables displaying homemade beaded earrings, necklaces and bracelets.

On the other side of the lot, Jacquelyn Brooks sits at a register holding Jo Jo, her black Jack Russell Terrier-Chihuahua mix. Jacquelyn had never sold her dresses, skirts and hair berets on game days before this season, and she says Saturdays are twice as productive as any other day.

Jacquelyn’s back is to 101 Cantina, where an outdoor tailgate with seven bars, a stage and a sound system has been set up — home games pay the bills for the whole year, bartender Tyler Fawbush says.

Dee Dee Ricks, class of ’90 and the subject of a recent HBO documentary, is at the entrance promoting a cancer awareness non-profit when a woman in a gray Gators sweatshirt approaches her. The woman is talking and laughing and nodding her head all at once. She recognizes Dee Dee from TV.

On the other side of NW 17th Street, UF Plaza looks like a market. Gator Shop has erected a pair of tents covering its merchandise: sweatshirts, T-shirts, hats, license plates, lanyards. The works.

At the Copper Monkey tent, employees are setting up six tables while a sign advertises cheeseburgers and fries and liquor and Jell-O shots and beer.

In front of Relish stands a bouquet of 136 beer cans: Heineken, Bud Light, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Stella Artois.

“It’s like a parking lot party,” Gator Shop co-owner Joi Bass says.Even with a bad team, alumni still shop because they can’t find Florida gear back home, she says.

A couple doors down, about 25 people are drinking in the Salty Dog Saloon. An hour from now, the place will be more crowded. An hour earlier, the doors had just opened and general manager Keith Singleton was confused. He had been at the bar since 7:30 the night before.

“Who am I supposed to be calling?” he asked a female employee, small bags under his eyes.

“Chris,” the woman said.

“He’s missing out on so much business right now,” Keith responded, dryly. 

The bar is empty at 9 a.m., save for a couple other workers. Keith says he doesn’t know why Salty Dog opens so early. He used to be doing game-day shots with the regulars at 9 a.m. But the regulars graduated, and nobody took their place. He blames President Bernie Machen, who raised admission standards and weeded out the Salty Dog crowd.

“It’s nothing like it used to be. I’m the manager; I don’t deal with customers as much as the rest of these guys,” he said, eyeing the rest of the workers. “Really, I mostly have to deal with people who are getting in fights, getting thrown out. That never happens anymore. That’s good, I guess. But still, this place is nothing like it used to be.”

Two doors down, Balls experiences a similar traffic flow: empty at 9, small group at 10, crowded by 11.

At Italian Gator, the usual two-person crew in the cramped quarters is replaced by an assembly line of four or five workers, none of them moving more than two feet to either side as they relay slices and pies to each other.

Today’s game won’t be as profitable as next week’s, general manager Damon Bailey says. Even so, the price for a slice is 50 cents more than a normal day, and sales usually double.

The sidewalk at midtown is crowded. Fans, scalpers and vendors are walking toward the stadium.

Past XS, past Gator City, past Dunkin Donuts and another merchandise tent and the St. Augustine’s Church, where the Catholic Gators Student Ministries are selling hats and T-shirts and hoodies — “Real Champions Pray!”

Past a tent selling Italian sausage, polish sausage, cheesesteaks. Past Lulu’s Fresh-Squeezed Lemonade booth. Past the eight-story condo project still under construction. Past the Delta Upsilon house and University Lutheran.

As the game draws closer, scalpers become desperate — doesn’t anyone want this ticket?

  

Next to the Pi Kappa Alpha house, facing Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, inside the white tent with five Gators flags on top, Henry Cummings watches fans shop. He has been here since 8 a.m.

Cummings, 59, is a tall black gentleman with a gray goatee. He ran track at Florida from 1971-74, and he has been working at Jacksonville-based Sports Mania for five years.

He will keep the portable store open for about two hours after Saturday’s game. He usually does.

Like most vendors, though, he is looking forward to next week. More people will be here. He will sell Florida State gear, too. And after night games, he sometimes gets to open back up on Sunday mornings.

Business is never really that bad, though, he says. Sports Mania makes between $5,000-$15,000 each Saturday.

Inside the tent, one girl walks out with a pack of wristbands, and a woman shows off some blue Gators slippers.

“People are gonna shop, regardless,” Cumming says. “This is the Gators we’re talkin’ about.”

Contact Tyler Jett at

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