Mark Kuchak has always rooted for Mizzou. As a fan, he naturally had an opinion on the University’s decision to move from the Big 12 conference to the Southeastern Conference.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Kuchak said. “They don’t understand how huge that is. They’ve had a rivalry for what, 129 years? And all of a sudden they aren’t playing each other?”
Kuchak’s concern over the move is larger than being a lifelong fan. He’s been the manager of Big 12 Bar & Grill for two years. Last year’s University athletic events brought in an estimated $147 million – both direct and indirect revenue – to Columbia, according to a study sponsored by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce. The authors project that the economic impact will increase to $185 million this year, the University’s first year in the Southeastern Conference. Kuchak wonders how the move will change the dynamics of MU sports and business.
“Can Missouri match up with the teams in the SEC? I’m afraid if they start losing to big teams like LSU and Alabama, people will not follow the teams like they used to,” Kuchak said.
The SEC traveling fans have restaurants bulking up staff and supplies. Crowd estimates project crowds previously only seen during high-grossing rivalry games with Kansas.
“Next week when Georgia comes in, they usually bring 15 to 20 thousand fans with them every time they go out of town,” Colin Greeson, manager of Sky-Hi Bar and Grill, said. “The SEC has a way bigger fan base. Everyone’s going to be busier, for sure. Downtown will be ridiculous.”
All of the allotted six thousand “away” tickets have been sold for Saturday’s Georgia game, although more fans are expected.
“The southern fans come into town earlier and stay later. They will come in from out of town and sometimes not even go to the game, they’ll just come for the experience,” Heidelberg manager and part-owner Richard Walls said.
Other games are sold out completely. For every game day, restaurants in Columbia average a 25 percent increase in sales. In the Heidelberg’s case, the average receipt is upwards of $10, while Sky-Hi Bar and Grill’s average receipt for August was $18.
The move to the SEC has increased tourism and sales, but unemployment is holding steady- at least for a long-term projection.
Columbia’s unemployment rate is nearly 3 percent below the national rate of 8.6 percent. Regional Economic Development Inc. (REDI) Executive Vice President Bernie Andrews attributes this lower rate to the stability of the area’s largest employers: the University of Missouri, health care, and insurance. He says in a good year, Columbia’s unemployment rate has usually been two to three percent.
“The University has been growing in terms of employment and student population. We have 34 thousand students now, and this stabilizes our economy and keeps our unemployment a little lower than other areas that have their economies based more on manufacturing, construction or tourism,” Andrews said. “Those tend to be more cyclical, and more up and down.”
Since the conference change, most restaurants have averaged 10 new employees to deal with crowds. Billiards on Broadway even changed its operation model to provide floor service for customers.
But Andrews is wary tying an unemployment rate to these new hires.
“My question on that would be: Will it just be a seasonal impact, or would it be a more long term impact on the unemployment rate?” Andrews said. “Are these permanent jobs, or are they just during football season, and then they’ll be laid off?”
These jobs, temporary or not, could disappear with declining sales, something Kuchak worries will happen if Missouri struggles in the conference. The result, he says, is not just a loss of fans- it’s a loss of business.
“If they keep winning, yeah, this is going to continue,” Kuchak said. “If they don’t, I’m afraid some of the fans will start jumping off the bandwagon, and that I hate to see.”