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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Selling in the Swamp: Gators football fuels Gainesville gameday micro-economy

Saturday home games both help and hurt local businesses

<p>Fans of both Florida and USF wait in line for pizza at Italian Gator following the Gator’s 31-28 win over the Bulls Saturday, Sept 17, 2022.</p>

Fans of both Florida and USF wait in line for pizza at Italian Gator following the Gator’s 31-28 win over the Bulls Saturday, Sept 17, 2022.

Selling in the Swamp Transcript

Almost every Florida Gators football home game, William Hatfield stands behind a booth decked out in an array of gator-themed jewelry on West University Avenue.

The orange and blue jewelry — created by the 69-year-old Jonesville resident’s wife, Karen Hatfield — has always turned heads, leading them to eventually start selling her pieces out of their booth during football games. They’ve been doing it for 17 years, he said.

As local shops and restaurants were crowded out by new development, Hatfield said they’ve gotten even more customers.

“All of a sudden, our business last year went up dramatically,” he said.

Because their jewelry making venture has been so successful, Hatfield said the couple will continue selling during home games for as long as they can.

Gainesville — normally a city full of residents commuting to work and students heading to class — dramatically transforms on game days.

Students, alumni and loyal fans flock to Midtown just to see the Gators play at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, sometimes traveling hours from out of town. This season has seen record-setting attendance numbers too — a total of 90,799 people crammed themselves in the stands despite the stadium’s maximum capacity of 88,548.

Beneath all the noise is a thriving gameday micro-economy, ranging from some of the most popular restaurants in Gainesville down to every booth stationed along West University Avenue.

Colin Haynes, an Original American Kitchen general manager, said football games always impact local businesses. OAK, a popular modern Southern-style restaurant in downtown Gainesville, opens an hour earlier on game days as well as the following day to accommodate their brunch customers, he said. 

“When the Gators win, it affects business in a positive way because people are more inclined to come out to the bar, have a few drinks to celebrate,” Haynes said.

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But downtown isn’t always the prime spot for gameday partying. People often begin to filter out and head toward Midtown as it nears game time, causing restaurants to lose business, he said.

“Instead of coming out to eat and drink, the tailgate culture is so popular in Gainesville that it’s kind of a lot of people’s first priority when they think of game days,” Haynes said. “It’s tailgating close to the Swamp, having your own little set up there where you can do your own food and drinks.”

Despite its distance from the stadium, OAK still considers itself one of the best places to “pregame the pregame,” Haynes said. Crowds often stop in to celebrate before heading toward the stadium to tailgate.

While downtown Gainesville quiets down leading up to kickoff, Midtown and its surrounding area ramp up. The newly reopened Swamp Restaurant floods with patrons eager for a gator-themed party. Lines of orange and blue form as soon as the restaurant’s doors are opened. 

Ryan Prodsky, owner of The Swamp Restaurant, said game days have only ever had a positive impact on his business. Even after moving to a new location farther from Midtown, he said they’ve been as popular as ever. 

“A staple of a gameday is for people to come to the Swamp,” Prodsky said. 

While closing hours always remain 2 a.m., the restaurant will often open early on game days to allow for more customers, he said. 

As fans dash to secure a spot at popular bars and restaurants, they often stop at little booths hosted by Alachua County locals along the way.

Kristen Stoner, a 49 year-old Gainesville resident, teaches flute at the UF School of Music. She has also sold handmade jewelry on West University Avenue for the past eight years.

“It’s been getting better every year,” Stoner said. “I have a lot of returning customers, so I get business every home game.”

Justin Jones, a Gainesville restaurant server, sets up water coolers and snack trays with his family near Library West on home games. Although the University of Florida v. University of Kentucky game was only their second weekend selling on game day, they had already been successful, he said.

“People were satisfied,” Jones said. “It’s a great business, I look forward to doing it.”

While manning a booth in Midtown is a great side hustle, he said his family also decided to start selling to help people that can’t afford up-charged goods on game days. Gainesville families struggling to make ends meet should still be able to go out and enjoy the game, he said.

“Stuff be high priced, so we’re basically out here to help people buy food and drinks that they can afford,” Jones said.

Local businesses and vendors are gearing up for the next gameday rush, which will be Oct. 1 during the Gators’ home game against Eastern Washington University. 

Contact Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp at Follow her on Twitter @rylan_digirapp.

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Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp

Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp is a second-year journalism and environmental science major covering enterprise politics. She previously worked as a metro news assistant. Outside of the newsroom, you can usually find her haunting local music venues.

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