Virginia Tech just hired a new football coach.
It’s also just hired someone to manage – and ideally grow – a nearly $81 million sector of the regional economy.
This is the same position, by the way.
We don’t typically think of football coaches as economic developers but they are, at least at the Division I level where Tech plays.
This isn’t just opinion; there are oodles of studies over the years looking at the economic impact of college football. The Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development did one in 2015 that calculated the economic impact of Hokies football at $61.9 million per year.. Run that through the U.S. Inflation Calculator and that comes to $80.64 million.
The next coach (Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry) sure better know his X’s and O’s because those are some big dollars and cents. This doesn’t even take into account the revenue that Virginia Tech football generates for the school’s athletic department. The Roanoke Times recently reported that more than half of the athletic budget – $51.7 million out of $96.7 million – comes from football. If you add that in, then we’re talking something north of $132 million that the football coach is responsible for generating.
It’s easy to carp about how much football coaches get paid – all this for exhorting some college kid to carry a bag of wind down the field? – but if you think about this in economic terms, what should be the proper rate for somehow expected to produce $132 million a year? (The recently departed Justin Fuente was set to make about $3.8 million this year.)
Sports fans can debate who should replace Fuente, and what kind of offense the team should run, but let’s look at what kind of economy he’s about to be responsible for.
If you think the economic impact of Tech football is limited to restaurants and hotels and gas stations, guess again. That 2015 report says “as many as 4,700 properties in the region may be owned by out-of-region football fans, primarily season ticketholders. Realtors estimate about half of those properties, or 2,350 homes, were bought with the expressed intent to attend Virginia Tech football home games.” The coach isn’t simply responsible for the real estate between the goal lines at Lane Stadium, but a lot of other real estate around the region.
My favorite line in the whole report: “When asked what Virginia Tech Athletics can do for Realtors, respondents linked the success of their sales and other businesses to the success of the football team, encouraging Virginia Tech to win more.” So apparently it’s not all just location, location, location – unless that location involves the opponent’s end zone.
Not included in all these figures is the revenue that Tech football generates for nonprofits, particularly churches. How does Tech football raise money for churches? Umm, parking. “Many local churches, religious organizations, schools, and other institutions charge football fans to park on their property on game days,” the report says. It identified at least 26 such places, of whom 10 agreed to provide some revenue figures: five churches, four schools and one local government, the Town of Blacksburg. Those 10 places collected upwards of $43,455 over the course of a season. It’s impossible to tell whether the 16 parking places that were identified but didn’t share revenue figures are bigger or smaller, so it’s impossible to know by what percentage we should increase that $43,455. But clearly the amount of money collected for parking is definitely more than $43,455.
Of that amount, $14,000 went to the Town of Blacksburg. Here’s one way to think of that: That’s $14,000 the town doesn’t have to extract from the wallets of taxpayers. As for the $22,675 that went to churches, that’s a lot of money in a collection plate that only gets passed, at most, a half-dozen times a year. The Tech football coach is truly doing the Lord’s work!
Now $80.6 million of economic impact for football sounds like a lot, especially if you’re measuring it against the alternative of not having any college football at all. But there’s another alternative, of course, and that’s having a bigger football program. National Asset Services calculates the economic impact of football at the University of Iowa at $100.1 million, Clemson at $115.3 million, Notre Dame at $122 million (and those Notre Dame figures were from 2014). Sports Illustrated last year reported the economic impact of University of Michigan football was $122 million per season. It pegged the economic impact of Penn State football at $130 million per season. By those measures, the next coach has a lot of room to grow the program, or at least its economic impact.
And once numbers start to get that big, the fun and games start to become less fun. The Sports Illustrated reporter Andrew Brandt writes: “I vividly remember talking to an NCAA executive when they levied the penalties on Penn State football following the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal. While many were suggesting – and the NCAA was considering – a one-year ‘death penalty’ for the program, the executive admitted to me that the ‘death penalty’ was never a realistic option. We can’t do that, it will destroy that economy, he said, aware of the economic and psychological impact on the appropriately named Happy Valley.”
Now filter that down to individual business. Front Office Sports reports: “Some Clemson area businesses reportedly bring in 50% of their revenue during the Tigers’ home games.” The Altoona Mirror reports that some hotels in and around State College, Pennsylvania, make 75% of their fall income from Penn State football. “Without football season many businesses here may not make it,” one hotel owner told the paper. By contrast, the businesses interviewed for the Tech economic development report were much more understated: “Game day weekends are great. They supply the additional sales to push us through the slower months of January and February.”
Still, money is money and football is money. Businesses in the Roanoke and New River valleys know this with Tech football. Businesses in Lynchburg know this on a smaller scale with Liberty University football. Ditto businesses in Harrisonburg, where James Madison University is about to move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision. Last year, when many programs were debating to shut down (or play spring football) due to the pandemic, Oklahoma State Coach Mike Gundy caused a stir when he came out in favor of playing, virus or no virus. His rationale? It wasn’t about wins and losses. He said big-time college football should go on “because we need to continue to budget and run money through the state of Oklahoma.” He may have had a weak grasp on epidemiology but he had a strong grasp of economics.
There will be lots of questions for Pry when he takes over as the next Tech football coach.
Can he recruit better from Hampton Roads and Richmond, two big recruiting grounds where out-of-state teams have bested Tech in recent years? (If you can’t beat other teams when it comes to recruiting in your own state, you’re probably not going to beat them on the field, either. It’s bad enough to lose to another team, but you sure don’t want to lose to another team whose roster is full of players from your own territory.)
Can he consistently post winning seasons?
Can he consistently contend for championships and major bowl invites?
But the biggest question of all: Can we grow that $81 million economic impact into a $100 million or more impact? Some might say that’s the real measure of big-time college football.