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How COVID-19 disrupts the economics of college football in small-town Texas

Andy Uhler Sep 25, 2020
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Because of COVID, Texas A&M is allowing only 25% of the stadium to be filled for its upcoming home games, but that’s still about 30,000 people. Scott Halleran/Getty Images
COVID-19

How COVID-19 disrupts the economics of college football in small-town Texas

Andy Uhler Sep 25, 2020
Heard on:
Because of COVID, Texas A&M is allowing only 25% of the stadium to be filled for its upcoming home games, but that’s still about 30,000 people. Scott Halleran/Getty Images
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On a rainy Tuesday morning just before a modest lunch crowd arrived, Wade Beckman sat checking his phone on the patio of Shipwreck Grill, one of the restaurants he owns in College Station, Texas, a town of a little more than 100,000 that’s dominated by Texas A&M University. The school’s football team starts its season on Saturday night against Vanderbilt. Because of COVID, the school is allowing only 25% of the stadium to be filled, but that’s still about 30,000 people.

Beckman’s restaurants have been struggling since the coronavirus emerged in the spring. He operated at a loss over the summer and said he needs things to pick up this autumn. 

“Yeah, we’re scared,” Beckman said. “If we don’t have fall, by January, we’re not going to be in a position where we can continue to operate. So we’re putting a lot of bank on, these football game weekends are at least going to bring us up to paying our bills.”

He admitted he didn’t know what to expect on Saturday. Texas A&M isn’t allowing any tailgating for the game, which could mean good traffic for his restaurant.

“This weekend is so just crazy unknown,” he said. “We know it’s going to be, or, we’re pretty sure it’s going to be busier than a normal weekend. But we just don’t know to what level.”

In normal times, banking on being busier than normal at a bar or restaurant on a game day in College Station is a safe bet. According to a study commissioned by the Texas A&M athletics department, people who go to sporting events spend more than $120 million a year. It’s the only game in town.

“We don’t have any natural wonders and we don’t have South by Southwest, but what we have is Texas A&M and football,” said Dennis Jansen, director of Texas A&M’s Private Enterprise Research Center. “We draw tourists from other cities to come here to watch football.”

Those tourists normally fill hotels and spend money all around town. Some locals even leave town and rent out their homes to visitors. 

Ben Wiggins lives in College Station and would normally go to football games with his family, but not this time around, not when coronavirus is still spreading. 

“I still love the football team, big fan of the team, and of course, the university,” he said. “But at this time, the correct choice for me is to stay home.”

He doesn’t begrudge anyone for going to the game and trusts that the university has done all it can to make sure people are social distancing and understand the risks. 

“There will be thousands of people there and I don’t think less of any of those people,” he said. “But it’s just a personal choice for me. I might attend games later in the season.”

But, for now, he’s lying low. His daughter is celebrating her first birthday on Saturday, so they’re going to have a little family-only party for her, instead.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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