‘It’s going to be devastating’: In Ann Arbor, businesses stare down a fall without football
Nancy Eubanks’s job isn’t one that lends itself to social distancing. She’s the catering director for Zingerman’s Delicatessen, a job that like so many in Ann Arbor, is made possible by large groups of people. Especially every other Saturday in the fall.
Eubanks has a routine on those Saturdays. She wakes up to the sound of the 400-member marching band practicing at Elbel Field, a few blocks away from her house. She traverses her way through throngs of tailgaters to the deli, where dozens of workers prepare upwards of 2,000 sandwiches, just for catering. Then she goes out to deliver those sandwiches to tailgates, some of them with hundreds of fans, all preparing to watch a football game with 110,000 more.
It’s a routine that makes the deli $250,000 in an average season. It’s also a coronavirus nightmare, which is why it won’t be happening this fall. That’s a decision Eubanks understands. She wants Ann Arbor to stay safe and knows that desire is incompatible with football.
But for Zingerman’s, and countless other businesses in the region, the financial impact is catastrophic. According to a 2015 economic impact report performed by the Anderson Economic Group, the average Michigan football season brings roughly $82 million into the Ann Arbor economy.
And while that’s only 0.16 percent of the Ann Arbor GDP, according to Stefan Szymanski, a professor of economics at the University, it’s concentrated in a handful of industries. The overall economy, Szymanski says, is propped up by big money makers, like University tuition, the medical center and major technological and manufacturing companies. Those revenue streams won’t be affected much, if at all, by a lack of football season.
For others, though — think hotels, restaurants and apparel shops — it’s an unmitigated disaster.
“A lot of these businesses are facing absolutely catastrophic financial situations and many of these businesses are likely to go bust,” Szymanski said. “In the long term, these businesses or other businesses will return to these locations once the crisis is over. So we’ll come out of this one day. But that’s not much consolation if your life savings are tied up in a business that’s going down the tubes now.”
And that’s where the real problem lies for Ann Arbor. The pandemic, now in its sixth month, has already brought a “pain point” Diane Keller has not seen in her 18 years as the president of the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce. Now, for many local businesses — and their workers — the loss of football serves as a calamitous cherry on top.
“It’s going to be devastating,” Keller said, letting out a deep sigh. “And the thing is it’s going to affect certain levels and some types of businesses more than others.”
Rishi Narayan owns one of those businesses. When he co-founded Underground Printing in 2001, it was exclusively a custom printing venture. And while that’s still its biggest revenue stream, the chain relies on college towns more than most.
Of Underground Printing’s 24 brick-and-mortar stores, 21 are in towns with FBS football teams, including every Big Ten city except Columbus — out of principle. In Ann Arbor, its downtown location shuttered over half its floor space last year when a new MDen moved in next door. Now, the future of its remaining locations is in peril. Five months after originally shutting down, those locations have yet to resume full hours — a move that will be indefinitely delayed by lack of a football season.
“On a face level, you would say, there’s (these) sales from gamedays,” Narayan said. “But on a much more macro level, there’s an overall economy that’s spurred from football. It’s the local businesses that are gearing up and those businesses are customers of ours.
“…Maybe one day, we’ll look back and try to quantify it. But it is unquantifiable.”
The impact for Underground Printing is such that football season rose to the forefront of Narayan’s concerns back in April, as soon as it became apparent the pandemic wasn’t going to end anytime soon. For a while, he found comfort in the belief that there would be a season, even without fans. While that would have done little for the brick-and-mortar locations, custom printing still sees a boost during football season.
Now, like Eubanks and so many others, he’s left scrambling again.
“Things are constantly changing,” Narayan said. “… It’s really hard to make committed plans. So for a lot of businesses in the area, it’s all about having variable plans and plans that can flex pretty easily or having a lot of iterations of plans. Everyone’s got their own strategy.”
On a larger scale, the persistent uncertainty terrifies Keller. Back in March, she says, each business concocted its own plan to stay afloat. But as the pandemic mows down each window of economic activity in its path — first graduation, then summer, now football season — those plans have become increasingly untenable.
“Every business is different and I don’t know how all businesses are going to be able to pivot,” Keller said. “And so that’s why I’m worried that we’re going to lose, or that we have lost, businesses that have been mainstays of our community that may not be able to make it through depending on how much longer this pandemic lasts.”
With football’s cancelation comes the added devastation of lost tourism dollars. According to the AEG economic impact report, 87 percent of ticket holders at Michigan games come from outside Washtenaw County. And each dollar those visitors spend, Keller says, recirculates through the local economy 17 times.
The effect of lost tourism is especially profound at hotels, such as Weber’s Boutique. Almost every night, hotels like Weber’s offer their rooms at steeply discounted rates. Those nights keep Weber’s afloat. Football weekends — complete with packed rooms, a Saturday tailgate and a pregame brunch buffet — are what have helped Weber’s thrive for 83 years.
“If football came, it’d be great, we could start making money again,” Michael Weber, the company’s vice president, said. “But right now, we’re planning for the worst and just trying to stay afloat with all the regulations and lower demand that’s in place,”
Weber, though, is among those who greeted the Big Ten’s decision to cancel fall sports with a glimmer of optimism. Football season without fans, he says, would have provided minimal benefit to the hotel. Now, he can hold out some hope, however faint it is.
And maybe, just maybe, come March, Nancy Eubanks can hop in her truck across town, 2,000 sandwiches in tow, and make Ann Arbor smile again.