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No Ohio State Football? Yet Another Economic Headache For Columbus

Quinn Allen at Dick's Dive, the basement bar at Zeno's in Victorian Village.
Nick Evans
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WOSU
Quinn Allen at Dick's Dive, the basement bar at Zeno's in Victorian Village.

Early this year, Quinn Allen pitched his wife on a sure-fire no, risk investment: buy a bar at the corner of Lane and High Street in Columbus.

“I said as long as this football team doesn’t go anywhere and the students don’t move out, we’re going to be just fine,” Allen says with a grin. “She wanted to laugh at me now, but it’s hard to laugh when we’re crying.”

That place is the Library Bar, a decades-old mainstay of the Ohio State student scene. Allen's family has also owned Zeno’s, a Victorian Village pub, for 36 years. With more than three decades in the business, Allen says, they’ve seen plenty of ups and downs.

This fall will be one of those downs, with twin threats from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Big Ten's cancellation of the fall football season. That likely means no Ohio State University football games, either in Columbus or on TV, until spring at the earliest.

Still, Allen is surprisingly optimistic looking forward. His bars saw the writing on the wall when it came to sports early on in the pandemic, and started planning as if there wouldn’t be a season, just in case.

But he admits that losing college football will sting for a bar like Zeno’s.

“I mean that’s working out to be 60, 65 if not 70% of our year,” Allen says. “It all depends on how the rest of the year goes, but it’s a big chunk, but like we said, we didn’t want to count on that. We’d rather just say what happens if we just ride out the slowest part of our season, and we just get to hang on like that for the rest of the year.”

Allen says Zeno’s is already generating less than half its normal revenue because of COVID-19.

Patrick Rishe, who leads the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis, explains the economic fallout will likely be even more pronounced in smaller communities that host big-name programs.

“Like State College where Penn State is, like Auburn where Auburn University is,” Rishe offers. “Very small town, a lot of people probably come in from Atlanta and go to the game Saturday, maybe stay overnight, too. So you could be losing one or two hotel nights for 20% of your 90,000 people that are coming to a football game.”

While both the Big Ten and the Pac-12 conferences pushed sports back until 2021, the South Eastern Conference, of which Auburn is a member, has so far refused to call off or postpone its fall season. 

In a statement posted to Twitter on Tuesday, SEC Ccmmissioner Greg Sankey said he was comfortable with the approach they have taken, but that he would review the factors behind the other conferences' decisions to delay.

From an economic point of view, that reticence is understandable. Rishe explains there’s a lot at stake.

“Football tends to be the cash cow of athletic departments, and helps to partially finance a significant portion of the rest of the athletics program,” Rishe says. “Then, when you don’t have football, it becomes harder to subsidize all of the Olympic sports.”

Ohio State defensive end Chase Young (2), linebackers coach Al Washington and head coach Ryan Day celebrate after a 56-27 win against Michigan after an NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.
Credit Paul Sancya / AP
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AP
Ohio State defensive end Chase Young (2), linebackers coach Al Washington and head coach Ryan Day celebrate after a 56-27 win against Michigan after an NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.

At The Ohio State University, football generated $115 million of the $210 million in revenues the school reported to the NCAA last year. That’s more than four times the revenue created by the school’s next largest sport, men’s basketball.

Other marquee Big Ten programs rely heavily on football as well. At Penn State, the team brought in more than 60% of the athletic department’s total revenue last year.

Even before the PAC-12 joined the Big 10 in postponing fall sports, one of its schools, Stanford, decided to drop 11 of its varsity sports programs because of revenue losses tied to COVID-19.

Ohio State officials declined to comment on whether a hiatus for football could threaten other sports. Ohio State has 36 varsity programs.

For Ohio State head football coach Ryan Day, further delays are the furthest thing from his mind. He’s pushing to be on the football field by January, and he says that could present a silver lining for some players.

“I think there’s some excitement about the possibility of playing two seasons in one year,” Day said on Tuesday. “You know, if I’m a midyear guy coming in, we do play in January and then also in the fall, but only count for one year of eligibility because it’s only playing in one calendar year. I think that’s really exciting for them and a possibility that really interests them.”

For the time being, until a decision is made on future seasons, Ohio State players, school administrators and Columbus business owners are left to wonder just how long COVID-19 will last and what other aspects of their life it will touch.