16,000 people, 81,000 seats: what happens when college football dominates a city | College football

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NOTNestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, on a wooded plot overlooking a man-made lake on the edge of the Clemson University campus, the James F Martin Inn is the low-key retreat where thought leaders show up at national conferences on the Education and distressed parents check in before saying a final goodbye to their freshman daughters. With its pastoral trails, on-site restaurants, and adjoining golf course with bunkers fashioned to echo the college football team’s tiger paw logo, the hostel offers another luxury that is likely to be worth considering. to interest rabid football fans: a hike to Memorial Stadium.

They call the stadium Death Valley, a name that nods to the lightning powers of 81,500 full-throated Clemson fans. Their impact on this upstate city with a permanent population of just over 16,000, which leaps from the 33rd largest city in South Carolina during the summer vacation to one of the the state’s most populous football Saturday, is even more resounding.

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The tens of thousands of people who cannot sit inside Death Valley are happy to pass by land or by lake. Much of the remaining overflow chokes College Avenue, where orange and purple clad supporters crowd downtown bars and stores like cotton swabs. But when Covid swept last year and ripped the party’s life away, the ripple effects were far worse than any loss to South Carolina or Alabama. “It kind of fell apart,” says Sharon Franks, the hostel’s longtime general manager.

Sharon Franks, General Manager of the James F Martin Inn: “It all kind of fell apart during Covid”. Photography: Steve Boyle

Football isn’t just the tide that floats Clemson’s sports department at $ 130 million; it is the cornerstone of this community. The local chamber of commerce estimates that a single football game has a minimum economic impact of $ 2 million – tax money that goes to law enforcement, public works and other items on the 28 budget. million dollars from the city. Related companies make up to 50% of their annual revenue from the Tigers’ seven home games each year. “We are very lucky,” said Clemson Mayor Robert Halfacre.

University sports series

In this symbiosis of town and dress, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney is more than the 8 million dollar man who laughs at the idea of ​​student-athletes getting a piece of the pie. (“This is where you lose me,” he said in a 2015 interview, raw meat for a John Oliver’s old-fashioned tilt.) Julie Ibrahim, owner of a pair of clothing stores called The Tiger Sports Shop, calls Clemson football “our purse” and has a fear for Swinney reminiscent of Wall Street’s reverence for Warren Buffett. “If you want to say something bad about Dabo,” she said of the coach who has won two national titles in the past five seasons, “you can forget it in front of me. my hero.

The more Clemson thrives under Swinney, the more other entrepreneurs see green. “A lot of people come here for a football weekend and say to themselves, ‘Wow, this town could use another bar, restaurant, or clothing store’ and open a place,” says Cameron Farish, co-owner of Tiger Town. Tavern, a welcoming city center. bar that turns into a mosh pit on match days. “And then when the company is not doing well, it’s because there is no football match. What they don’t realize is that you make gravy seven days a week a year, but you have to bake a cookie for 360. ”


VSOvid didn’t just steal the cookie; he set a raging fire in the kitchen. He forced Clemson to close in mid-March and shrouded his sports scene in uncertainty. The Atlantic Coast Conference, in which the Clemsons participate, canceled spring sports, a significant source of income for the Clemson community, and kept suspense all summer long over its fall football plans .

To fill an estimated $ 25 million deficit caused by the pandemic, the Clemson Sports Department has ended its men’s track and field and cross-country teams, marking the first time that an elite-level school in varsity athletics, the Power 5, was abandoning these sports. Clemson football coaches have been forced into pay cuts; USA Today found that Swinney’s debited amount, a relatively modest $ 698,500, nonetheless exceeded the annual salaries of at least 24 Football Bowl Subdivision head coaches.

The ACC ultimately decided to move forward with the 2020 football season, but there was a limit of 19,000 spectators in Death Valley and the team only played six home games in a shortened schedule. .

Tiger Properties office manager Katie Green stands by her office on College Ave in Clemson.
Tiger Properties office manager Katie Green stands by her office on College Ave in Clemson. Photography: Steve Boyle

On top of all that, one had to reckon with the virus itself – which introduced more mess to the football schedule as the ACC adjusted its Covid protocols in real time. Not only did more than 20 players test positive for Covid during the preseason, the Tigers ultimately lost star quarterback Trevor Lawrence to the virus for two games.

In total, the town of Clemson saw its revenue decline by $ 1.8 million between September 2019 and September 2020 due to the pandemic. “If you’re just talking about hospitality and lodging taxes, the average loss was 18.5%,” said Halfacre. Meanwhile, hotel bookings have dried up and bars and shops have fought to get people to walk through their doors under strict masking and social distancing guidelines. On game days, Clemson went from being the biggest party in the state to being a nap party. “We closed for four weeks during the pandemic as the university scrambled to figure it all out,” says Franks, the innkeeper.

Luckily for the hostel, its connection to the university has proven to be a saving grace. Once athletics returned, Clemson used the hostel to accommodate visiting teams and rookies during the fall – an arrangement that kept Franks employees working. “The other hotels had a little more trouble because they didn’t have this option.

The few Clemson businesses that didn’t struggle were mostly tied to the city’s great outdoors, on hiking trails or rented boats where social distancing comes more naturally. Off-campus housing rentals also flourished during the pandemic. “Our students tried to get out of our leases,” says Katie Green of Tiger Properties. “Unfortunately, due to our lease agreement, there is no clause to break the lease.” That’s even though the university froze undergraduate tuition fees for the second year in a row.

That’s enough to make you wonder how much Covid could have affected this community if there was, say, an auto parts supplier or a bottling plant in town. Why there isn’t one is less a question of economics than of geography.


The town of Clemson spans less than eight landlocked square miles. It is surrounded by mountains, lake and tens of thousands of hectares of protected forest land. Clemson University covers 1,400 acres.

The unique blend of the city’s sky-high popularity and land scarcity helps match the high land values ​​and property taxes, especially compared to Greenville, Anderson and other nearby towns where there are more ‘tax breaks and room for growth. This is why car dealerships, big box stores, and other tent businesses are located on the outskirts of town, while small hospitality-oriented businesses operate within campus boundaries. These constraints do not only drive out large industries. They are dissuading entrepreneurial-minded Clemson graduates from building their businesses around college, which could help diversify the local economy away from football alone, in the same way that graduates of Duke, Carolina of North and the State of North Carolina have done so in and around. the Research Triangle. “Go around these towns,” says Farish, the bartender, who also sits on the town’s economic development advisory board. “There are think tanks, engineering companies, software startups, biomedical companies. And these places employ the husbands and wives of teachers, professors and staff. And they are diversifying the economies of those cities that were once dormitory communities. Clemson doesn’t have that.

Cameron Farish, co-owner of Tiger Town Tavern:
Cameron Farish, Tiger Town Tavern Co-Owner: “You make gravy seven days a year, but you have to bake a cookie for 360.” Photography: Steve Boyle

When Tiger sports are in season, small business owners thrive and also keep students and townspeople in paid employment. But when the sport disappeared during the pandemic, local entrepreneurs had to get creative to survive. Ibrahim, the owner of Tiger Sports Shop, was on the verge of suffering heavy losses last year as the usual foot traffic entering and leaving his stores slowed during Covid. But with the help of manager Shawn Cartmill, she quickly turned to selling face masks with the Clemson logos while growing her business online and adding curbside and drive-thru service.

“There were a lot of things I thought about before Covid hit, you know, that could make football go away,” says Ibrahim, who has been in business since 1974. “Would that be too much? injuries, or will they go on probation for some reason? This has been by far the biggest and most unusual crisis we have experienced in our business. But we are still strong and looking to move forward at all times. speed until someone tells us otherwise.

Clemson’s football returned to campus on Saturday last Saturday, with the home side bouncing 49-3 against South Carolina State after being tripped by Georgia a week earlier on neutral ground in Charlotte. Death Valley was packed, bars and stores were full, and College Avenue was swaying again (although some social distancing measures remained in place). The party is officially back, but for exactly how long no one can say for sure. With Delta and other Covid variants in the air, a community is holding its collective breath. The last thing this city needs is another pandemic stop. If it seems like the people here are supporting the Tigers like their lives depend on it, well, that’s because they do.


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