16,000 mense, 81,000-sitplek stadion: wat gebeur as universiteitsvoetbal 'n stad oorheers?

Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, op 'n beboste plekkie wat uitkyk op 'n mensgemaakte meer aan die rand van die Clemson -universiteitskampus, the James F Martin Inn is the demure retreat where thought leaders check in for national conferences on education and distressed parents check out before bidding their freshman babes one last teary farewell. Along with its pastoral trails, on-site dining and adjoining golf course with bunkers shaped to echo the tiger’s paw logo of the university’s football team, the inn offers one more luxury that’s likely to be of interest to rabid football fans: a 20-minute ramble to Memorial Stadium.

They call the stadium Death Valley, a name that nods at the withering powers of 81,500 Clemson fans at full throat. Even more resonant is their impact on this upstate town with a permanent population of just over 16,000, which makes a jump from the 33rd-largest city in South Carolina during summer break to the state’s most populous on football Saturdays.

The tens of thousands who can’t get a seat inside Death Valley are happy to tailgate by land or lake. Much of the remaining overflow chokes College Avenue, where supporters clad in orange and purple pack themselves inside downtown bars and shops like cotton swabs. But when Covid swept through last year and snatched the life from this party, the knock-on effects smarted far worse than any defeat to South Carolina or Alabama. “Everything just kind of fell apart,” says Sharon Franks, the inn’s longtime general manager.

Football isn’t just the tide that floats Clemson’s $130m athletic department; it’s the lifeblood of this community. The local chamber of commerce reckons a single football game has a minimum economic impact of $2m – tax money that flows to policing, public works and other line items on the city’s $28m budget. Related businesses rake in as much as 50% of their annual revenue during the Tigers’ seven home games each year. “We are very blessed,” says Clemson mayor Robert Halfacre.

In this town-and-gown symbiosis, Clemson’s head coach Dabo Swinney is more than the $8m man who scoffs at the idea of student-athletes getting a piece of the pie. (“That’s where you lose me,” he said in a 2015 onderhoud, raw meat for an old-fashioned John Oliver skewing.) Julie Ibrahim, owner of a pair of apparel stores called The Tiger Sports Shop, calls Clemson football “our stock market” and has an awe for Swinney that recalls Wall Street’s reverence for Warren Buffett. “If you wanna say anything bad about Dabo,” she says of the coach who has brought home two national titles in the past five seasons, “you can forget about it in front of me. He’s actually my hero.”

The more Clemson prospers under Swinney, the more other entrepreneurs see green. “Many people come here for a football weekend and say to themselves, ‘Wow, this town could use another bar or restaurant or clothing store’ and open a place,” says Cameron Farish, co-owner of Tiger Town Tavern, a homey downtown bar that transforms into a mosh pit on game days. “And then when the business doesn’t make it, it’s because there’s no football game. What they don’t realize is you make gravy seven weekend days a year, but you’ve gotta make a biscuit for 360.”

Covid didn’t just steal the biscuit; it set a raging fire in the kitchen. It forced Clemson to shut down in mid-March and shrouded its sports scene in uncertainty. The Atlantic Coast Conference, in which the Clemson competes, canceled spring sports, a not-insignificant revenue stream for the Clemson community, and kept the suspense going all summer about its fall plans for football.

To stanch an estimated $25m pandemic-induced shortfall, the Clemson athletic department discontinued its men’s track and field and cross country teams, marking the first time a school from the elite level of college athletics, the Power 5, had dropped those sports. Clemson’s football coaches were forced into salary reductions; USA Today found that the amount debited from Swinney, a relatively modest $698,500, nonetheless exceeded the annual pay of at least 24 Football Bowl Subdivision head coaches.

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

On top of all that, there was reckoning with the virus itself – which introduced more disorder into 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, but the Tigers eventually lost star quarterback Trevor Lawrence to the virus for two games.

Altogether, the city of Clemson saw a $1.8m decrease in revenue between September 2019 and September 2020 as a result of the pandemic. “If you just talk about hospitality and accommodations taxes, the average loss was 18.5%,” Halfacre says. All the while hotel bookings dried up and bars and shops fought to keep people flowing through their doors under strict masking and social distancing guidelines. On game days Clemson went from the biggest party in the state to a veritable snooze fest. “We closed for four weeks during the pandemic while the university was scrambling to figure everything out,” says Franks, the inn keeper.

Lucky for the inn its ties to the university proved to be a saving grace. Once athletics were back on Clemson used the inn to house visiting teams and recruits during the fall – an arrangement that kept Franks’s people working. “The other hotels struggled a little more because they didn’t have that option.”

The few Clemson businesses that didn’t struggle were mostly tied to the town’s great outdoors, on hiking trails or rented boats where social distancing comes more naturally. Off-campus housing rentals thrived during the pandemic, ook. “Our students tried to get out of our leases,” says Katie Green of Tiger Properties. "Ongelukkig, due to our lease contract, there’s no clause to break the lease.” That’s even as the university has frozen undergraduate tuition for the second straight year.

It’s enough to make you wonder how differently Covid might’ve effected this community if there were, sê, an auto parts supplier or a bottling plant in town. Why there isn’t is less a matter of economy than geography.

The city of Clemson spans fewer than eight landlocked square miles. It’s hemmed in by the mountains, the lake and tens of thousands of acres of protected forest land. Clemson University stretches 1,400 acres.

The town’s unique alloy of dizzying popularity and land scarcity make for high property values and property taxes to match – especially relative to Greenville, Anderson and other neighboring cities where there are more tax breaks and room to grow. Hence why car dealerships, big box stores and other tentpole business are situated on the outskirts of town while smaller, hospitality-driven business operate within the confines of campus. These constraints don’t just drive away major industries. They disincentivize entrepreneurial-minded Clemson grads from building their firms around the university that might help diversify the local economy away from solely football in the same way that Duke, North Carolina and Wake Forest grads have in and around the Research Triangle. “Go look around those towns,” says Farish, the barkeep, who also sits on the city’s economic development advisory council. “There’s think tanks, engineering firms, software startups biomedical companies. And those places employ the husbands and wives of professors, faculty and staff. And they diversify the economies of those towns that were once bedroom communities. Clemson doesn’t have that.”

When Tigers sports are in season, small business owners prosper and keep students and townies gainfully employed, ook. But when sports went away during the pandemic, local entrepreneurs had to get creative to survive. Ibrahim, the Tiger Sports Shop owner, was poised to suffer steep losses last year as the usual foot traffic in and out of her stores slowed to a trickle during Covid. But with help from manager Shawn Cartmill, she quickly pivoted to selling facemasks with Clemson logos while expanding her online business and adding curbside and drive-thru service.

“There were a lot of things I thought about before Covid hit of, jy weet, what could cause football to go,” says Ibrahim, who’s been in business since 1974. “Would it be too many injuries, or will they go on probation for some reason? This has been by far the greatest, most unusual crisis that we’ve had in our business. But we’re still strong and looking to move forward full speed until someone tells us otherwise.”

Last Saturday Clemson football returned to campus in full force, with the home team rebounding to a 49-3 blowout against South Carolina State after getting tripped up by Georgia a week earlier on neutral ground in Charlotte. Death Valley was packed, the bars and shops were full, and College Avenue was rocking once again (albeit with some social distancing measures remaining in place). The party is officially back on, but for exactly how long no one can say for certain. With delta and other Covid variants in the air, a community holds its collective breath. The last thing this town needs is another pandemic shutdown. If it seems like people here are rooting for the Tigers as if their lives depended on it, wel, that’s because they do.

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