Illini losses mean less money for Champaign-Urbana

Illini losses mean less money for Champaign-Urbana

CHAMPAIGN — Fighting Illini fans were hoping first-year head football coach Tim Beckman could bring more wins to Memorial Stadium.

Local businesses were hoping he could bring more people to Champaign County.

Those who follow Illini football will lay the blame where they will, but as the team wraps up its season this Saturday in Evanston against Northwestern University, one thing is clear: The Fighting Illini had an underwhelming season, both as a football team and as an economic engine for Champaign County.

Going into its final game, the team has won twice and lost nine times. It has lost eight games in a row and has not won a single Big Ten conference game.

Fewer wins mean smaller crowds and less people who are willing to stick around and spend their money in the Champaign-Urbana area.

That's huge for Champaign County, said Jayne DeLuce, president and CEO of the Champaign County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"You win, people want to stay longer, people spend more money, they buy more food," DeLuce said.

And, as Illini fans are painfully aware, losing hurts.

"They don't win, they go home," DeLuce said.

That's not to say that a losing football team does not have any positive effect. The economic benefit of a losing team is still in the millions of dollars, DeLuce said.

"It's extremely important, both from an economic engine, and from branding," DeLuce said. "You're known for your athletics."

In fact, at all three Merry-Ann's Diners — two on campus and one in downtown Champaign — you would think the Fighting Illini were vying for a national championship.

"Despite the lackluster performance, our business hasn't fallen off one bit," said Merry-Ann's Diner owner Tony Pomonis.

He thinks it is because Merry-Ann's prices are lower than some other restaurants that they are able to continue attracting Fighting Illini fans who are looking to save a few bucks in a down economy.

"It seems like if you get an influx of 40,000 people, even if the attendance is atrocious and it's affecting the university in a very negative way, that's still 40,000 people that are right down the street," Pomonis said.

But the drop-off when the team is not playing well is clear at Eastland Suites in Urbana. Take last season, for example. General manager Ray Ceresa said his hotel sold out every weekend in September 2011, a month when the Fighting Illini hosted four games at Memorial Stadium. And the home team won all of them.

There were four home games and one away game in September 2012, too, but the Illini started this season with two wins and three losses. For Ceresa and the Eastland Suites, that translated into $45,000 less revenue than the previous September.

About a month ago, Ceresa had about 100 open rooms out of 126 for last weekend's home game against Purdue, whose fans live relatively close to Champaign-Urbana and should have traveled well. Many Illini fans come from outside the county, too.

"We should have been full," Ceresa said.

Over the next few weeks, Eastland Suites booked about 40 more rooms. But that still left dozens of rooms vacant.

"For a special event, a home football weekend, that's unheard of," Ceresa said.

You can extend that to restaurants and shopping centers — that's 40 fewer groups of people buying meals at local restaurants, filling up at local gas stations and buying merchandise at retail stores.

Luckily for Ceresa and Eastland Suites, the majority of the year has been good, he said. But he knows the turnout for home football games can make or break local hotels.

"I wouldn't say they broke us, but with only a month or 40 days left in the year, we're going to be down compared to last year," Ceresa said.

He will have to try to make up for that by cutting staff hours and carefully considering how he budgets for next fall, he said.

"It's our job now to look at different ways for next year where we can't always rely on the Fighting Illini," he said.

County tourism officials cannot nail down an exact number of how much money the Fighting Illini football team brings into the community — only that it is one of the most important economic drivers in the region.

To calculate the "economic impact" of an event, tourism officials use a formula that includes a multiplier for how many times an outside dollar is spent in community.

For example, the Illinois High School Association football championships this weekend at Memorial Stadium are expected to have an economic impact of roughly $3.1 million, DeLuce said.

She expects crowds to be strong as there are a lot of high school football teams coming to Champaign this year that have not been to the state championships in a while.

DeLuce said she expects the Unity crowd to be one of the biggest, but those visitors will not be booking hotel rooms like the more distant fans of the other schools.

As far as the Illini, DeLuce said officials might want to calculate the economic impact at some time in the near future.

"We've actually talked about doing it as a research project, just because there's been more interest in it this year," DeLuce said.

And while Illini fans are lamenting the football team's disastrous season, Ceresa is more hopeful.

"With a new coach, new team, new buzz, hopefully we'll see the football team go in a direction that benefits everybody," Ceresa said.

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