An APR News feature
The return of sports is on everyone’s mind as fall nears and the answer will largely impact the economy as a whole.
Jim Page, President and CEO of the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce, said that football season and sports in general are important to the economy.
“We could get by if football season were modified to a great extent,” Page said.
Because of COVID-related sports closures, both the state and national economy have already lost millions and stand to lose billions if sports, and college football in particular, do not return soon. The sports industry accounts for roughly $14.3 billion in direct earnings each year nationwide. Tuscaloosa specifically could lose close to $200 million of economic impact if football alone does not return in the fall. Page said football season is vital to the local economy and its restart after months of decline.
“There is no question in my mind though that we would lose some businesses that would close their doors for good because I do think there are a lot of them that are just kind of...staying afloat until they can get to football season. If football season were to be greatly affected in any shape form or fashion, I think that would be the death nail for a lot of them,” Page said.
Page said the numbers that show a $175 million economic impact for college football could be even larger now.
Tuscaloosa isn’t the only one depending on a university to bring money to their economy. Auburn reported that the university and its alumni make an annual $5.6 billion economic contribution to the state. The University of Alabama at Birmingham athletics alone generated $35.7 million in overall economic impact to the state of Alabama.
The Tuscaloosa economy is built around the University of Alabama football season. Not only does the sport bring in money from fans, but it also brings in more students. Football season being canceled could result in fewer students attending the university, which would negatively affect the size of the college’s population.
Mayor Walt Maddox estimates Alabama football alone brings in between $180 to $200 million of economic impact with tens of millions of dollars of direct and indirect tax revenue for the city.
“It would be catastrophic to lose football season,” Maddox said. “[It] would basically put in peril the economic vitality of this community. You would likely see dozens, if not hundreds, of businesses close. You would certainly see a precipitous drop in tax revenue, which ultimately would be a reduction in services. It would be catastrophically economically to the community and financially to the city.”
Maddox said Tuscaloosa could survive a canceled football season but what the community and economy would look like after it is something no one truly knows.
Stan Adams, the Director of Sports for the Tuscaloosa Parks and Recreation Association, said there is no precedence for the community to go by in terms of sports being canceled. His department alone is proposing multiple plans of budget cuts due to the unknown nature of what fall could look like.
He said the tourism department for PARA has numbers from the hotel industry reporting a 75% compacity last March down to 13% this March. That type of decline would likely continue into the fall if sports don’t return. Adams said his department alone has lost $36 million of economic impact from the PARA sports events planned from March to June 15 when Governor Kay Ivey gave the all clear for various sports to resume play.
The economic standpoint is not the only thing sports directly impact. Sports play a vital role in the economy as well as the psychological impact it has on the community. From a mental health standpoint, Adams said sports are necessary for community morale.
“Obviously, I think the economic impact is a main driving factor, but I think you’ve seen from past tragedies we’ve had, with 9/11 or the tornado here, the football team was such an integral part of just restarting things and getting some normalcy back,” Adams said. “That’s what everyone is kind of missing right now. Sports is always the first thing to come back.”
Brett Bently, a sports and family medicine physician for the University of Alabama, said prevention shouldn’t necessarily be the focus when sports return.
“I think the name of the game here is more mitigation and reducing the risk of transmission. It is going to be very difficult, no, impossible to have a 100% prevention of this incredibly contagious disease but to do everything we can in our power to slow the transmission of it,” Bently said.
Bently said there are a variety of ways coaches, parents, and players can help reduce the transmission of the disease as sports begin their return. If these are enforced, Bently believes sports have more benefits than risks.
“I’m wholeheartedly in support of youth sports and high school sports coming back. I think it does wonders for not only the physical conditioning of these athletes but also just from a mental health standpoint. They need to get out and be active, but there is a lot of preventive measures that can be made by coaches, parents, and even the players themselves to slow the transmission,” Bently said.
Communication between coaches and players is key in terms of being clear about the guidelines that need to be followed. The CDC guidelines involving hand sanitizer, respiratory etiquette, and social distancing remain the most well-known way to reduce transmission.
Various new rules related to sports have been created to also help with this reduction like roster restrictions, equipment cleaning, masks in dug outs or on benches, and an expanded sideline.
“It’s hard to ignore the spike in cases. I still feel the acuity of cases is dropping, but the number of cases is increasing mainly cause we’re testing a lot more but your public health folks are going to have a hard time signing off on football starting or any other sport when cases are increasing as quickly as they have been over the last week or two,” Bently said.
Bently believes the number of cases is rising because of the increase of testing; however, this rise does make it difficult to sign off on college football resuming like normal. In the debate between safety and sports, safety will likely win out resulting in a tumultuous economic climate for the state.
Page said while sports tend to help Alabama, it could be a double-edged sword.
“A community that loves sports like we do, that’s a great thing and it’s been great for our economy all these years. The flip side of that is that when you’re dealing with the unprecedented health pandemic like we’re dealing with right now. It’s going to impact a community like ours more than others, so we benefit more than others in good times, and we suffer more than others during bad times,” Page said.
Page said in order to save football season, people must do the little things. Wearing a mask, social distancing, and washing your hands are things everyone can do in order to help ensure a season is played.