By Julia Stumbaugh
The ball had barely slipped out of Virginia Tech wide receiver Damon Hazelton’s hands when the first University of Virginia students’ feet hit the turf.
The incomplete pass meant UVA had beaten its fiercest rival for the first time in 15 years. Nothing, not fences or Scott Stadium employees, could keep the hillside student crowd from spilling onto the field, where players were whipping off their helmets to shout their triumph to the sky.
Like most memories, the field rush looks different in the light of the pandemic. The celebration that felt so natural and effortless last Thanksgiving—bare hands on sweaty shoulders, singing “The Good Old Song” linked arm-in-arm—now feels a world away.
Today, as the Cavaliers prepare for their September 19 rematch against Tech, Scott Stadium stands empty. And when football players take the field, their calls will echo in a mostly vacant stadium: In order to adhere to Virginia crowd safety regulations, stadium crowds will be limited to 1,000 people—team family members only—in an arena with a regular capacity of 61,500.
Despite the enormous amount of money UVA athletics generate, the school’s most profitable sports—football and men’s basketball—operate on surprisingly thin profit margins. According to The Daily Progress, in the 2017-18 financial year, the university athletics program had a deficit of about $340,000, despite generating over $100 million in revenue.
Even football, the most profitable sport, brought in only about $6.5 million after costs in the fall of 2018, according to a financial report filed with the NCAA. In 2018-19, UVA spent $25.9 million on its football program and brought in $32.4 million total. Almost $6 million came from ticket sales. That means that without a crowd at Scott Stadium, the university’s biggest moneymaker could become another red line in its athletics budget.
But the loss of a football crowd will reverberate much further than Grounds.
“Football weekends are huge here in the Charlottesville area,” says Brantley Ussery, director of marketing and public relations at the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Hotels are going to feel it in terms of their occupancy rates. Typically we’re sold out on home football weekends. And the impact goes beyond the hotels and also goes to the wineries, the restaurants, and all the other tourism-related businesses that benefit from all those additional fans that come on the weekends.”
Charlottesville and Albemarle draw millions of visitors to central Virginia every fall. In 2018, the city and county took in a combined $21.9 million in tourism-related taxes, not to mention a whopping $654.4 million in tourism dollars that cycled into the local economy, reports The Daily Progress.
Visitors come for the wine and the views, but also for the football. UVA home games attracted an average of almost 48,000 people per game in 2019. In a normal year, that would mean thousands of out-of-town visitors heading downtown on six of Charlottesville’s busiest Saturdays of the year.
This, however, is no normal year. Food and occupancy tax revenues bottomed out in April and have climbed steadily since then, but June 2020 tax revenue was still down almost 50 percent compared to June 2019, reports the Free Enterprise Forum. The $2 million in lost tourism taxes stung for a city already operating on a pandemic-reduced budget.
Charlottesville, so dependent on tourism, has no choice but to remain hopeful. “We have seen slow and steady increases over the last couple of months,” Ussery says. “Each month looks a little bit better than the month before…we just hope that continues as we go into the fall season.”
The team finalized its schedule on Friday, announcing a slate of 11 games. Ten of those will be played within the ACC.
Despite the schedule confirmation, there’s no guarantee the season will proceed as planned. Two of the NCAA’s Power 5 conferences have already called off their seasons. Across the country, COVID-19 outbreaks on campuses have pushed administrations to move classes online or send students home. Other ACC rivals like the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State are proceeding with football even though classes are all virtual.
At UVA, which is holding some in-person classes, the football team has been living and practicing in a “bubble,” limiting contact with the outside world as much as possible. After practicing in full face shields, players return to an isolated residence hall. They also receive regular COVID tests, none of which have returned positive for the virus since July 24.
“Our players are getting ready to move off Grounds, and the students are coming, and some of our classes will be in person,” Mendenhall told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in late August. “And so, by that very design, the bubble is broken.”
Each year, as the leaves start to turn, Mincer’s lines the sidewalk outside its Corner storefront with racks of orange and blue sportswear. It’s no coincidence that six of Mincer’s 10 busiest weekends correspond with the six UVA home games every season.
“Since Scott Stadium is within walking distance, people are always just around the Corner all day,” says Cal Mincer, the shop’s vice president. “It’s a big spike for us.”
It’s a similar story for The Draftsman Hotel. Along with graduation weekend, home football games are when the hotel is most likely to sell out—especially if the visiting team is within driving distance, like Virginia Tech or UNC.
“The fall also has parents’ weekend, so it’s a pretty predominant peak season for us,” says Walter Burton, manager of The Draftsman. “You’ve got fall weddings, you’ve got parents’ weekend, you’ve got football games. Just those three dynamics, it helps boom the economy here in Charlottesville.”
This year, Corner businesses aren’t sure what to expect. Fans won’t be heading to Scott Stadium, but perhaps they’ll find their way to town on football Saturdays nonetheless.
“I would like to think, just because of Charlottesville and the attraction and people’s support of the football team and sports teams at UVA, we will probably still get some folks that are just going to come to the area, just to be a part of the atmosphere and the culture of UVA and Charlottesville,” Burton says.
“I don’t know if [limited ticket sales] will cause a big spike in people hanging out on the Corner, and then that’ll be good, because they’ll be at Boylan or something watching the game,” says Mincer. “Or if that’ll just kill all the traffic for the Saturdays.”
For now, Mincer’s attitude is the same as The Draftsman’s, and the tourism bureau’s, and the athletics department’s, and the entire city of Charlottesville’s: There’s nothing to do but wait, see, and hope for the best.
“We don’t really know what to expect,” Mincer says. “And even if we did, there’s not a lot we can do to prepare for anything. We’ll be open, and we hope people come.”