SBJ/December 4 - 10, 2006/SBJ In Depth

Town rallies around game

About the same time most University of Alabama students end their Friday nights during college football season, Rick Tibbett’s Saturday begins. An alarm clock shakes the university’s head groundskeeper awake at 4 a.m., to start an 18-hour day overseeing operations outside the football stadium.

Alabama officials estimate that
the game contributes $15 million
to the local economy.

While each game presents challenges, none is more demanding than Auburn-Alabama. During the course of that day, Tibbett’s team will fill 72 Dumpsters with trash — 10 percent more than any other game this year. The effort is just one of several that Tuscaloosa officials and businesses undertake on rivalry weekend to ensure visitors enjoy the game day.

The highest profile game of the season sees the town swell with more than 80,000 additional people, doubling the city’s population. The influx bolsters the economy, fuels the hospitality and retail industries, and unites the community by giving people a central issue to rally around.

Ringing the registers

Research done by the Chamber of Commerce shows that football games pump an average of $12.7 million into the economy over a three-day weekend. With an additional 8,000 seats at the stadium and the allure of a big-time rivalry game like Auburn, that number rises to $15 million, according to Alabama’s athletic department.

Merchandise sales on the day of the Auburn game finish second to only the first game of the season, retailers say. Along University Drive, the main commercial strip near the stadium, retail shops buzz with people buying T-shirts, polos and sweatshirts before the game.

This year, Alabama Express moved 2,800 Alabama items — more than 550 of which were T-shirts — while across the street, The Locker Room, which sells specialty Polo shirts with a trademark elephant emblem designed by the store’s owner, enjoyed a 20 percent increase in sales from the last Southeastern Conference game.

In appreciation, the Locker Room owner gave back to customers by putting a keg of beer in the back for shoppers to enjoy. “This town lives and dies with Alabama football,” said owner Alex Gatewood. “You’ve got to be sure they’re taken care of.”

Tuscaloosa hoteliers reported their best football weekend ever. Ninety-five percent of the region’s 2,586 rooms were booked Friday and Saturday night, generating more than $611,000 in room revenue. The $124.25 average nightly rate for the two nights was 5.4 percent better than that of the previous seven weekends this season, and nearly double the average of a nonfootball weekend.

Handling the masses

As locals and visitors move from the hotels, bars and stores toward the stadium, the university makes sure they enjoy the day. More than 400 police officers from the university, city of Tuscaloosa, sheriff’s department and state highway patrol monitor crowds, check vending licenses and direct traffic.

The university spent $125,000 to have an outside agency, the Bruno Event Team, develop a parking and traffic plan. Bruno developed a Web site providing information on everything from where to park an RV to what routes best avoid traffic. The team closed a seven-block area around the stadium to create a more pedestrian-friendly area, and redesigned postgame exit routes to use four-lane rather than two-lane roads.

Not everyone rushes to leave campus after the game, though.

As Tibbett — one of the first university employees to work and one of the last to leave at 10:30 p.m. — drove his golf cart across campus four hours after the Crimson Tide’s 22-15 loss to Auburn, he stopped by a tent of tailgaters. They were still rocking with drinks in hand and burgers on the grill. One of them offered Tibbett a burger. “Thanks for what you guys do all year,” he said. “You keep it organized out here.”

Considering it was the last game of the season, Tibbett took it as a good sign for next year.

“Win or lose,” he said later in the week, “they’ll be back.”

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