Hattiesburg counts on a good football team to create good business

Ellis Johnson may have lost his job after an 0-12 season at USM, but many in Hattiesburg count on a good football team to create good business.

The University of Southern Mississippi’s football program just finished an 0-12 season.

It cost first-year coach Ellis Johnson his job. That won’t be the only fallout, though.

Businesses that depend on traffic generated by football games in Hattiesburg have had a rough fall, too. John Neal, Keg and Barrel, usually stays busy with the catering side of his brewpub. He normally has at least one event on campus to cater each home game, which means at least six business opportunities tied directly to USM football.

This year, Neal only catered two such events.

At the Keg and Barrel, which offers a wide selection of craft beers, Neal said he can depend on fans of visiting teams to show up thirsty for micro brews. That ended after Sept. 29, when USM lost to Louisville in Hattiesburg. That game dropped the Eagles to 0-3.

“After that it was pretty much downhill,” Neal said. “I don’t think I saw a single person wearing non-USM colors after that game.”

But the narrative isn’t that cut and dried. When a season sours as quickly as USM’s did, fans are still going to watch the game. They just won’t watch it in M.M. Roberts Stadium.

“The irony of it all is we were a little busier during the actual games because people were watching them here. At the very least, it was equal to last year. Six o’clock game days usually hurt us, because the vast majority of people leave town after the game ends that late. But they didn’t this year. They watched the game here and then went home. Obviously we want to be 12-0 because those three hours aren’t going to kill us. We’ll make that trade.”

Ron Savell, who owns the Hattiesburg franchise of Mugshots Grill & Bar, also saw an 0-12 season’s double-edged sword. Like Neal’s Keg and Barrel, Savell’s crowds during the game were up compared with last year. Again, fans will most always watch, just not in the stadium. And with Mugshots’ 87 televisions, there are enough so that every patron in every corner can get a good look at the game.

Where Mugshots felt the pinch was when USM coach Ellis Johnson held his weekly radio show there, Savell said. Last year, the crowds for former coach Larry Fedora (now at North Carolina) would number between 40 and 50 in the early part of the season, and steadily grew as the Eagles worked their way toward a Conference USA championship. The reverse happened this year, Savell said.

“Starting about the middle part of the season, we’d have one table that was here just for the show,” he said. “Maybe one table. People definitely quit coming, and that hurt us because we paid a lot for the rights to have that call-in show here.”

Chad Newell, president of Hattiesburg’s Area Development Partnership, said Greater Hattiesburg (which covers Forrest, Lamar and Perry counties) averages $2.5 billion in annual retail sales. Newell said in an email that it was possible the sales taxes related to retail sales for October and November could be lower than they usually are.

“While our local economy is resilient enough to weather a tough football campaign, everyone certainly looks forward to returning to our winning ways,” Newell said.

In Starkville, Mississippi State’s winning ways under fourth-year football coach Dan Mullen have led to record-setting revenues generated by sales taxes and a 2 percent restaurant tax.

For the month of September, Starkville collected $498,516 in sales tax revenue, its best September ever. That was an increase of 6.74 percent over September 2011, which was a record at the time. The restaurant tax collections for this September were $138,031, breaking the September 2010 record by almost 14 percent.

Jennifer Gregory, chief operations officer for the Greater Starkville Development Partnership, said MSU’s on-field success had a lot to do with those numbers. Also, she said, the GSDP started the “Mississippi’s College Town” marketing campaign 18 months ago, designed to promote Starkville as a tourist destination, not just a town whose university has a really good football team. Events like “Bulldog Brunch and Browse” on Sunday mornings after home football games aim to keep visitors in town the whole weekend. “Those are stores that were normally closed on Sunday,” Gregory said. “MSU athletic events are our top tourist attraction in Starkville, so we wanted to take advantage of that.”

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