Bayou Apparel owner Daniel McNamara remembers his screen printing presses zipping out merchandise before and after former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow was awarded the Heisman Trophy last year.
“When Joe won, we were printing all night to serve the Louisiana market,” McNamara said. “Everybody knows that football is king in the South.”
Looking forward to the springboard off that undefeated National Championship season into this year, he and other business owners have been concerned about LSU football over the past few weeks as various conferences postponed their fall seasons until the spring because of the coronavirus pandemic. McNamara found relief Monday after the Southeastern Conference attached actual dates and places to its in-conference-only schedule and put LSU on a slightly delayed track to a Sept. 26 kickoff.
“If there’s no game there’s no game-day T-shirts,” said McNamara, who’s had stacks of unprinted iconic purple T-shirts sitting at the company’s warehouse that were delivered in early July, waiting for the start of the season.
“We are moving full steam ahead,” McNamara said. “I think things will pick up for everyone once football starts; very excited about the Sept. 26 kickoff.”
Founded 16 years ago, Bayou Apparel is a licensed LSU wholesaler that sells merchandise, mostly T-shirts, to retailers ranging from big-box chains to independent shops. The small Baton Rouge business employs just shy of a dozen workers now, but had tripled its size with temporary contractors to meet demand during last year’s championship season.
This football season will be like none he and other business owners have experienced because of the pandemic and the limitations, business disruptions and uncertainty it’s causing.
For now, Louisiana is still in Phase 2 of reopening its economy, with social distancing and capacity restrictions imposed on restaurants and most businesses, with bars shuttered and many of them pivoting to becoming temporary restaurants to stay open.
“I’m definitely more optimistic but holding my breath because we’re still on Phase 2,” Ashley Fairley, owner of LSU campus boutique Tiger People Clothiers, said of the SEC schedule release.
In a normal year, hundreds of thousands of fans descend upon Baton Rouge to watch LSU Football players take the field at Tiger Stadium. Tailgaters fire up their grills and crack open a beer to prepare for the sports tradition. A similar scene is played out across the city as thousands more trek to a favorite sports bar or restaurant to watch the game on big screens or to home-based parties.
LSU has not released any official decision about potential stadium capacity or tailgating, though its interim president said Tuesday that fans without tickets to the game would likely be discouraged from tailgating outside of Tiger Stadium.
The business of throwing a party in Baton Rouge is worth hundreds of millions to the local economy. In a normal year, about $60 million is spent by out-of-town visitors when the Tigers take the field each fall season, that’s an increase from an initial $50 million estimated in 2013 — because the stadium capacity grew by 10% and dollar figures are adjusted for inflation. Inside that figure, roughly $3 million is spent at concession stands, some of which is split by civic organizations for summer camps and various community activities later in the year.
“It’s the profits from that football program that support everything else except men’s baseball and basketball,” said Loren Scott, a retired LSU economist and Baton Rouge consultant, who estimated the football season’s value to the local economy by surveying fans in the early 2010s. Scott himself holds season tickets for LSU football, but has decided not to attend this year for health concerns.
“Not having people in the stands means no fan spending. This is one of those strings that when you start pulling on it all kinds of things unravel,” Scott said. “There’s a multiplier-effect once you take that money away from restaurants and then the income of the people who work there and so on.”
In 2018, the LSU football franchise was estimated to be worth $852 million by a Wall Street Journal analysis and is among the most lucrative collegiate athletic programs in the nation.
In the 2018-19 academic year, LSU athletic revenue grew to $158 million from $145 million in 2017-18 school year.
The bulk of the LSU revenue comes from ticket sales, but also tens of millions in contributions.
Some fans, particularly season ticket holders, have already made their own decision about whether to attend Tiger Stadium games — even before a final announcement about how the season might play out.
A survey conducted by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation in June found that, out of 500 respondents, 49% of people said they would not likely attend large crowded events like festivals or football games without social distancing. Even with social distancing, only 35% said they would be in a crowd.
There are more than 70,000 season ticket holders at Tiger Stadium. Of those who wanted to get rid of all their tickets, 40% have opted out of buying tickets for the fall. Some tickets became a tax-deductible donation, others rolled the payment over into 2021, and some wanted a full refund. Those seats are not lost, though.
“Once you have your seats in Tiger Stadium, you want to keep them,” said Robert Munson, senior associate athletic director for LSU. “Nobody is going to be punished for not being able to come (to games in person) in 2020.”
Munson described the situation as “fluid” and that there’s no deadline for season ticket holders to make a decision. If, for example, the fan already paid for seven games but there are only five games played, the fan would get choices for compensation for the value of those tickets.
“Our ticket holders are going to continue to have options as the situation unfolds. We’re going to stay in contact with them as this unfolds,” Munson said.
For some business owners, waiting until just a few weeks before a scheduled football kickoff is cutting it really close, especially when there are containers full of merchandise waiting to be delivered and uncertainty in the air.
About 75% of the revenue generated at LSU campus boutique Tiger People Clothiers happens during the fall. The shop already had to clearance-sale many LSU SEC Championship items because the store owner thought it was required to close in March, plus its manufacturers were shut down anyway in the spring.
“I feel like the hardest part is that they haven’t made a decision yet so we haven’t been able to plan and our economy is based on this, whether people go to the games and stay in our town,” said Fairley, at Tiger People. “I’ve got people calling me about my big orders and I have to tell them, just hold it.”
“It’s just such a scary future,” she said. “I want football season to happen for my business, but then is it the right thing to do. Then I feel guilty because people are dying, but then I can’t feed my kids.”
In a typical year, the shop would be buzzing with employees unpacking and preparing merchandise for the first game.
“You need everything priced and tagged for when you have 50 people in your store on game day,” she said. “Thank God this happened after the National Championship, so we had a little bit of a wave to ride off of.”
Instead of bulk-buying clear bags for customers, she’s been stocking up and selling LSU-themed face masks.
“I can’t just shift to selling non-LSU clothes; nobody knows us for that,” she said. “I’ve already got white tank tops for September games that are 100-degrees. What if it’s going to be cold if they play in the spring? I need to plan.”
At Visit Baton Rouge, the local visitors bureau expected this season to be a smash hit.
“We know that it won’t be what we thought six months ago,” said Paul Arrigo, CEO of Visit Baton Rouge. “I don’t see anyone coming here unless they were in attendance” at a game in Tiger Stadium.
Typically fall brings the highest hotel occupancy of the year in Baton Rouge as rooms sell out months ahead of time.
“Baton Rouge is branded with both LSU and Southern sports. When people come to Baton Rouge, they have a good time and they can go back with a good feeling. That’s a brand you can’t buy,” Arrigo said. “They come to tailgate and that’s their memory.”
Meanwhile, much of the Baton Rouge “social calendar” revolves around the football season as many events avoid competing with an LSU football game.
At Southern Tradition Tailgating, a Starkville, Mississippi-based trailer rental business that caters to LSU fans and other football crowds, each fall is a ritual. College students are hired to drive tailgating trailers packed with tents, couches and televisions out to games for eager fans, even catering for several thousand dollars per client, then pack up when the game is over.
“Tiger Stadium has an electric atmosphere,” said Brad Vicker, CEO of Southern Tradition Tailgating. “All they have to do is sit there and be in the atmosphere. If you win, you want to go celebrate, and if you lose the last thing you want to do is break a tent down, (and) pull behind trailers,” he said.
While the tailgating company is not an official vendor at LSU and can’t set up on campus like it did years ago, there is still demand for its services, including catering from local restaurants.
This fall had been booked up by fans, but that’s no longer the case, Vicker said.
“We have college students who are heavily dependent, and if we’re not allowed to set up they are not going to make their spending money to eat or buy books, this all trickles down,” he said.
Co-owner Bert Carson of Scoreboards Sports Bar and Grill on Coursey Boulevard said LSU football moving forward would help businesses.
Without football, “it’s kind of senseless to open,” he said. “We’re hoping for Phase 3,” Carson said of loosening state-imposed Phase 2 business restrictions that are keeping bars shuttered that aren’t permitted to sell food. “If we can get to Phase 3 and (LSU) does football, we have a shot.”
If something changes and there’s no football this fall, the bar may just shut down for good, he said. It has been a sports broadcast studio in recent months but the fodder for sports coverage has been thin. During “away” games, the sports bar fills up during the fall with fans eager to catch a glimpse of the score.
“People have been locked up for months. They have cabin fever. If they don’t get football, they are going to go stir crazy,” Carson said.
At Catering Kegs in Baton Rouge, a beer distributor near the stadium, the owner already has had a rough year after dozens of St. Patrick’s Day kegs were canceled last minute at the outset of the pandemic shutdowns, when he had just begun dying the beer green.
For owner David Olinde, LSU tailgating parties are the bulk of the fall business, though it’s been trailing off somewhat in recent years.
“The only sales I’ve been making are people who have coolers at their house and they restock the beer when they run out and have taps,” he said.
Mike Anderson II, second-generation owner of Mike Anderson’s Seafood near LSU, is bullish about the prospects for the fall.
“We’ve been blessed with very loyal customers,” Anderson said about the restaurant that’s been around for nearly five decades.
The dining hall has banquet rooms and is often a spot for players and teams to eat after the game.
Even without football, sales have been picking back up in recent weeks, especially to-go orders, he said.
“I don’t think it’s really going to affect us that badly. It’s going to hurt the community more,” Anderson said, if the season were postponed or canceled. “We always decorate the restaurant for home games with balloons and all the servers dress up. We’re always playing the fight song in the dining room with people cheering.”
The restaurant usually has 100 employees but it’s down to about 50. Still it expects to ramp back up for the fall whether there is football or not. It has started selling “family pack” meals in recent months, a first for the restaurant.
“I would rather us just get through the season and move on; everybody is in hard times right now,” he said. “This whole state is run off that football team,” he said. “It’s stressful. I try to stay optimistic, but we’ve got to fight every day.”