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College towns prep for football boost

Winning weekends

Money flowing from visitors’ pockets into the Mississippi college towns of Hattiesburg, Starkville and Oxford during football weekends definitely kicks up the local economy a notch. But it’s difficult to say just how much.

Economic impact studies for Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Southern Miss are outdated, and even though the universities have the talent, professors say it’s somewhat difficult to accurately qualify and quantify visitors — and to find someone to foot the research bill.

Mississippi State published the most recent report, in 2001, on the economic impact of visitors to the Golden Triangle region, but the study’s notes candidly indicated early on that the research had “limitations and weaknesses.”

For example, using a formula, some 510,000 visitors attended sporting events in 2001, and spent roughly $8.2 million on food, gasoline, lodging and stadium sales. Their purchases produced approximately 92 jobs. Other research showed that actual visitors that year exceeded 600,000.

A little guessing going on…

“The problem in these kinds of estimations is that nobody knows, so people are guessing,” said Dr. Charles Campbell, an economics professor at Mississippi State. “They ask the tourism people, who always over guess. They talk to university people about attendance, which is a confused kind of measure because economic impact comes from new money to an area because of some event. Several years ago, a study measured the impact of the Big 3, but the kind of methodology used included double and triple counting.

“Bottom line: when you’re looking at local impact, you don’t count local people. When you’re looking at statewide impact, you don’t count Mississippians.”

Campbell has developed a survey for Mississippi State athletic events and expects to have a report ready in 2005.

“Some people are using a canned input/output model from Minnesota that uses national averages, but those are also educated guesses, not solid numbers,” he said. “That’s why we developed our own.”

Ole Miss business professor Hugh Sloan said the school’s last economic impact study, done in 1993, is “outrageously out of date.”

“We have a higher student population, a higher parking count, our stadium’s bigger,” he said. “Even though we can’t measure the impact precisely, I will tell you this: the five or six football weekends in Oxford are the most amazing of the year.”

When Eli Manning was the quarterback for the Ole Miss Rebels, the population of the community jumped from 20,000 to 70,000 on home football game weekends. Even though Manning has moved to the New York Giants, huge crowds are expected to flood The Grove.

“If you were going to The Grove, you’d have to stock up,” said Sloan. “There’s a substantial impact on local ‘picnic and cook-out’ categories of groceries, not to mention the accoutrements such as drinks and ice.”

Ole Miss created national buzz recently when the Princeton Review ranked it as one of the “Top 10 Party Schools in the U.S.” The report was compiled by surveys based on questions focusing on the amount of alcohol and drug consumption, the amount of time students spent studying and the popularity of fraternities and sororities.

“Grocery stores and Wal-Mart are always packed and there’s not much left on the shelves,” said Jennifer Downs, tourism manager for the Tourism Council of Oxford. “But there’s no way to track whether that’s from local or out-of-town people.”

Downs said the town’s 675 rooms are booked well in advance, with many travelers verifying reservations for the following year upon check-in. Many out-of-state visitors bunk in nearby Batesville, Holly Springs, New Albany or Tupelo, while a few lucky ones rent homes from Oxford families.

Oxford merchants are gearing up for brisk game-day business. Melinda Gholson and her sister, Rachel Murphy, have a full staff and employees on standby at Get Lucky, the new discount designer clothing store they opened this spring.

“A lot of ladies shop while the men go to the game, especially when it’s still hot,” said Gholson.

Winning seasons help

Arma de la Cruz, vice president of tourism for the Greater Starkville Development Partnership, said during a winning season, the city’s 707 hotel rooms are fully occupied. With a two-night minimum, hotel receipts total nearly $85,000. “But we didn’t have a good season last year,” she said, with a sigh.

“When you’re losing, people go home,” said Jay Yates, chef/owner of The Veranda, an upscale seafood and steak restaurant in Starkville. “When you’re having a winning season, you’re getting business all week long, not just weekends. People are in a good mood and feel more like socializing.”

Even though Mississippi State has seven home games scheduled this fall, Yates said area restaurateurs consider the additional business simply “icing on the cake.”

“A winning game is a cherry on the icing on the cake,” he said. “But no matter what happens, a football game weekend in a small college town is a fun, fun thing.”

On a roll in Hattiesburg

Thanks to 10 consecutive winning seasons and six bowl appearances in the last seven years with Jeff Bower as head coach at Southern Miss, Hattiesburg has enjoyed consistent boosts during football weekends at The Rock.

“We average $1.5 million to $1.7 million per game,” said Southern Miss athletic director Richard Giannini. “The bigger the game, the higher that goes. Last year, when we played Nebraska at home, a gentleman that owns the Wendy’s franchise in Hattiesburg said he was up 77% compared to the same day a year ago. That’s tremendous proof of what a big football game can do for a community.”

A six-year-old study, which revealed that Southern Miss athletic programs created an annual economic impact of more than $31 million for the Hattiesburg area, is being updated this fall, said Giannini.

“A lot has changed,” said Giannini. “In 2003, we won an unprecedented fourth Conference USA championship. Southern Miss finished the season with a 9-4 record, winning the final six games of the regular season in the process. We’re on a roll.”

That wasn’t always the case.

When Rick Taylor joined the Hattiesburg Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) as executive director in 1993, the impact of Southern Miss football on the hotel industry was very limited.

“It wasn’t even considered a significant market segment for hotels to track, and hotels are very good about tracking clusters and groups that benefit them,” he said. “That has changed in the last several years to a viable market segment, and has tracked along with Conference USA. Instead of being an independent team, C-USA has moved us from, I hate to say this, a ‘nothing’ status to being an identified market status. As that record has improved, and as Southern Miss has moved to play more significant ‘name’ teams, it’s created a greater demand. Increased television exposure and moving game times from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. has helped, too.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.


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