CHAMPAIGN — Oct. 31 won’t be a normal Illini football game day.
With spectator access limited to family members of athletes, hotels won’t be filled with fans and tailgaters won’t fill the lots around Memorial Stadium.
But local businesses are still hopeful that it eventually leads to something resembling the way things were pre-pandemic.
“We’re not necessarily going to gain any business from it, but I’m truly hoping this is one step closer to putting people in attendance,” said Kevin Dandrea, general manager of the Holiday Inn Express in Urbana. “You’ve got to play the game to get people in the stands. At least we’re playing the game. Then we can work on part two.”
Even if fans can’t attend, Dandrea said the Big Ten’s announcement last week of a shortened season should help morale.
“University towns love their university sports,” he said.
At Gameday Spirit, retail manager Cory Shumard also viewed the news as a positive, but was likewise unsure about how much the games would help business.
“We’re certainly thrilled, like everyone else, to get the biggest question out of the way, about whether there’d be football at all,” he said. “We’re still a little bit cautious with our optimism and waiting to see what an Illini football Saturday looks like.”
With the business also serving as merchandise concessionaire at Memorial Stadium, Shumard said the influx of fans on typical football weekends is “like Christmas seven weekends of the year.”
“The retail locations have a tendency to still exceed — depending on attendance — sales on site, but we’re looking forward to a fuller stadium,” he said. “This was supposed to be a team that we were waiting for.”
Not having fans will be a “big adjustment for our business,” Shumard said, but “don’t get me wrong: Illini football playing is better than them not playing.”
At the Tumble Inn tavern, owner Toby Herges is excited.
“I’m hoping for the best,” he said. “They were talking about not allowing any tailgating, and if that’s the case, then it would definitely cut down on our traffic. A lot of people from not too far away come in and like to make a weekend of it.”
The return of the NFL, NBA and MLB have been good for Tumble Inn, he said.
“They haven’t quite been the same without fans, but there’s still something to watch,” Herges said.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of the return of football will be the TV and radio stations that broadcast the games, as well as Illinois athletics.
Of the $118 million in revenue the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics brought in in fiscal 2019, $46 million came from media rights, of which $35 million was generated by the football team, according to its financial report.
“I think the reality is that certainly (Wednesday’s) announcement will help us financially,” athletic director Josh Whitman said. “It makes our picture a little better than when we woke up (Wednesday) morning, but it’s not going to be a silver bullet, either.
“We’re going to continue to work through the challenges presented by nine football games instead of 12 and by not having public ticket sales. Those are all things that obviously have pretty dramatic implications for our bottom lines.”
Michael Arthur, senior vice president of Veritone, which handles content licensing for the Big Ten, said this week’s announcement should provide relief to worried talk-show hosts and TV networks.
“The networks, especially Fox and certainly the Big Ten Network, were planning other things to try to fill some time,” he said. “This obviously gives them a tremendous break.”
And, he said, “you just enabled talk radio and coaching shows and regional-sports-network chatter to be relevant again.”
Despite the pandemic, he said advertisers are still looking for places to advertise, and “this is going to be an attractive place to put their ad money.”
He also said the timing of the conference’s return should bode well.
“The awareness of the college season will be at a peak when the Big Ten starts playing, from a ratings standpoint,” Arthur said. “I expect all the rights holders, and Fox specifically, will do very well with the programming.”