Football economy: Leaders say morale keys business
By Seth Thomas Gulledge
The Daily Reflector
Sunday, September 9, 2018
On Saturday, about 40,000 Pirate fans flooded Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. They also poured thousands of dollars into local shops, restaurants and bars creating an economic boom for Greenville and Pitt County.
Saturday’s game against UNC was a welcome bright spot for an East Carolina University football program that has struggled to fill seats with fans who have been disappointed with less-than-perfect football seasons, including consecutive 3-9 records in 2016 and 2017.
Following ECU’s home-opening loss against North Carolina A&T State on Sept. 2, concern grew about the possibility of declining Pirate morale. Many in the business community said another losing season could effectively undercut a primary economic engine for the city.
The 41-19 win over rival North Carolina on Saturday has officials hopeful that morale and attendance will buoy for the beginning of the season, and further season success could lead to prosperity for the region.
“I think that people took the loss against A&T pretty badly,” Joe Shingara, local Pirate football fan who said he plans to continue attending games regardless. “The game against UNC is a ‘make-it or break-it’ moment for a lot of people. If we win I think we can all forget about the first game. If not, I think it will affect us a lot.”
Business leaders in the Greenville area said that it is impossible to quantify impact that home football games have, but agree they represent an important economic driver that fluctuates with a variety of factors, including the visiting team, special events, weather and overall season morale.
Andrew Schmidt, executive director of the Greenville-Pitt County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said finding ways to leverage the program is key for the region, because high-attendance football games are an important aspect of local business models.
“There’s a couple different ways to look at it, but when you have a successful football program your hotels are busy, so your restaurants are busy and so your retail is busy — it’s a kind of domino effect,” he said. “Those are weekends that — to be honest — our local hoteliers, retailers and people in our local economy look forward to and count on.”
Don Edwards, owner of University Book Exchange on Cotanche Street downtown, agreed that fan excitement is vital for his own business. He said having a competitive football team is something he and other local merchants depend on.
“As far as our business at UBE, we have a great base of fans,” he said. “However, winning is enormously important to the success of our business. Quite candidly, it’s hard for UBE if we win two or three football games; it’s challenging for us to be profitable.”
Regardless of season expectations and morale, Schmidt said certain built-in parts of the football season guarantee some level of economic prosperity. Games against nearby opponents and special weekends like homecoming and parent’s weekend always lead to high attendance. Outside of these special games, fan morale seems to be the defining factor.
“The last couple years have been rough,” he said. “People have noticed a difference.”
Trent McGhee, director of marketing and communication with the Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce, said excitement regarding the team’s prospects is especially important in the later half of the season, but at the end of the day the program is contributing to the economy regardless of whether attendance is high or low.
“The excitement level is typically high going into a season and there will be a positive impact on the local economy regardless of on-the-field expectations,” he said. “Whether or not that positive impact will be comparable to years past remains to be seen, but there will be an impact for the duration of the season for the simple fact that from September through November there are seven weekends where the tourism dollars are more than any other time of the year.”
One key to negating the economic impact of a less-successful season may have to do more with fan resilience than with relying on success, leaders said.
Greenville Assistant City Manager Michael Cowin said while the relationship between Pirate success and economic prosperity is complicated, one thing is clear: The impact is directly related to support for the team, not the reality of the season.
“Clearly East Carolina University and Vidant are the backbone of our economy,” he said. “For that reason alone, their success is vital to our community, but it goes much deeper than that. ECU is a reflection of the pride we all have in eastern North Carolina and the place we call home. For this reason we should all be supporting ECU regardless of wins or losses.”
Edwards noted that in recent years the city has increased efforts to leverage the football team, especially in the downtown area. He said with all these safeguards in place, the city is in a perfect position to truly benefit from a competitive program.
“I do think the efforts being made — the renovation of older buildings, the new restaurants, walkability, the vibe of Dickinson — (are) a good thing to focus on, a good thing to soften the blow of losing,” he said. “Now if we start winning and have all this great activity here, think of all wonderful it could be. The sky is the limit.”
Contact Seth Gulledge at 252-329-9579 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GulledgeSeth