STARKVILLE — Egg Bowl 2001 is history, but the economic impact of the 100-year-old rivalry between Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi still lingers.
“It’s great having the game here, especially this year because the economy has been so bad,” said Kristi Brown, executive director of the Starkville Chamber of Commerce. “It prompts a few more store owners to open on Thanksgiving, and visitors tend to spend a little more time in the area and check out what’s new.”
This year, 51,112 people attended the Egg Bowl, which MSU won 36-28. The game was held at the recently expanded Davis-Wade Stadium at Scott Field on the MSU campus, which holds a capacity crowd of 52,000. When MSU hosted the Egg Bowl in 1999, the attendance was 41,200.
By comparison, 43,579 people attended the MSU-University of South Carolina football game in Starkville Sept. 20, and attendance was 45,514 when the Bulldogs hosted Louisiana State University Oct. 20, according to Arma de la Cruz, marketing assistant for the Starkville Convention and Visitors Bureau.
During the Egg Bowl broadcast on ESPN, commentators announced that the sports channel execs had inked a new contract to broadcast the Egg Bowl on Thanksgiving night through 2003.
“Our ESPN contract with the SEC doesn’t give us a bigger share on Thanksgiving, but you can’t buy that kind of exposure for the State of Mississippi, especially since we’re the only college game on that Thursday night,” said MSU athletic director Larry Templeton.
As visitors swarmed the city of 22,000, businesses welcomed much-needed sales to offset the economic slowdown.
“We don’t have exact economic impact numbers yet, but it will no doubt be significant,” said Brown.
A majority of the city’s 737 rooms were full. Comfort Suites, Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express and Ramada Inn reported 100% occupancy. Many hotels and B&Bs required a two-night minimum stay. Gail Harris, manager of Hampton Inn in Starkville, said 80% of Thanksgiving weekend guests stayed at least two nights.
Kay Shurden, owner and hostess of the five-bedroom Caragen House in Starkville, said she filled up early for the five-day holiday weekend.
“Our guests weren’t here necessarily because of the game,” she said. “Some were visiting relatives.”
Opening stores on a major holiday proved challenging for some business owners, whose staff primarily consists of students. Oktibbeha County, home of Starkville, and Lafayette County, home of Ole Miss, have the lowest unemployment rates in the state at 2.6% and 1.8%, respectively, according to the Mississippi Employment Security Commission.
“We’re all used to having the game on Thanksgiving, so we plan well in advance,” said John Bean, co-owner of Harvey’s and the Cotton District Grill in Starkville. “We let our employees know in advance that we’ll be open on Thanksgiving and will pay time and a half. We’ve also got other restaurants in Starkville and Columbus so it’s not too hard staffing on a holiday. We try to hire kids that want to work, need the money and keep their heads in their books, so they’re goal oriented and look at it as a day to make money.”
Others employers adjusted by opening only for limited hours on game day.
“We had the same scenario last year in Oxford, but we’re not complaining,” said Jim Bulian, partner of Old Venice Pizza Co. in Starkville and Oxford. “The bar was full and the restaurant served appetizers Thanksgiving Day. By 10 o’clock, we only had two people in, so we packed it up. We closed Friday and Saturday because our staff is entirely made up of students and it’s very hard keeping them in town for the holidays, especially when school lets out Monday of Thanksgiving week.”
When the Egg Bowl moved from Jackson to Oxford and Starkville, the economic impact shifted to the college towns, which host the rivalry game on a rotating basis, creating a void in the capitol city.
“The Jackson Convention & Visitors Bureau has expressed Jackson’s interest in hosting the Egg Bowl again,” said Dee Gardner, communications coordinator for the Jackson Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’ll continue to talk with both schools about the possibility of moving the game back to Jackson.”
The growth in popularity of the Capital City Classic has helped fill that void, Gardner said.
“The Capital City Classic has made its own impact on Jackson and generates a significant economic impact for the city,” she said.
Many Starkville business owners are pleased that MSU is playing its home games at Scott Field, not in Jackson or selling their home game locations, as it had in years past.
“You don’t build $30-million expansion projects and move games,” Templeton said. “Now that we’ve enlarged the stadium you’ll see more games, not less games.”
Bean said all home games are profitable for local businesses, especially Saturday football games.
“We’re just really happy that so many home games were here this year,” Bean said.
Not all news was good in Starkville on Thanksgiving. Fans of Flo and Eddie’s on University Drive, a favorite pre-game hangout within easy walking distance to the stadium, were shocked to pull up Thursday afternoon and see nothing but smoldering remains. Fire destroyed the Starkville restaurant in the predawn hours. Owners James and Carol Finley opened Flo and Eddie’s in 1994.
“It’s a shame,” said Brown. “People enjoyed going there.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.