MISSOULA — It's no secret that Missoula's economy benefits greatly from the presence of Montana Griz athletics.
But with the upcoming football season and more in limbo because of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses of all kinds could feel ripple effects in one way or another.
So what would that impact be if football and more were ultimately canceled?
According to a study by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at Montana that was conducted in 2016, Griz football alone is responsible for bringing in an estimated $2.53 million worth of spending from out-of-area attendees per each home game. With inflation rates over the last few years, it's possible that number has gone up slightly, and Montana is scheduled to have six home games in the 2020 season.
As far as athletics as a whole, the study reports that Griz athletics is responsible for about 1,384 full-time jobs that range from state and local government to arts, entertainment and recreation. Additionally, the report says $120.8 million in gross sales or output are enjoyed by local businesses and are due to the presence of UM athletics in the community. The largest part of that, retail trade, makes up $42.3 million.
Two other eye-popping stats in the report include $44.3 million in annual earnings, including wages, benefits and earnings of the self-employed as well as $52.8 million in income of all kinds to Missoula households, of which $44.9 million is after-tax income.
The report says in a hypothetical economy where Griz athletics does not exist, those numbers would be missing.
"I think the people who come to Griz games are more affluent than the typical visitor, they spend more money," Patrick Barkey, the director of the BBER who headed the study, said. "They spend a little more time in Missoula than the typical visitor. Their loss to the economy would be significant."
Barkey said the study focused on the visitors coming into town from outside Missoula. It did not take into account the money that is spent by those who already live in Missoula because that money would be spent in town whether Griz athletics existed or not and the amount visitors spend is money that isn't being spent in another town or city. In the study they also took a look at the athletic department, the scholarships given out and the ongoing activities with all of Griz sports to see that impact as one large unit.
Main areas of visitor spending includes merchandise, gas, lodging and food.
But outside of visitor spending, Barkey said there are a lot of other ways athletics brings money into the economy. For example, a full-time coach hired at UM now spends their money in town, as do student-athletes who are on scholarship and now live in Missoula. Then add in when friends or families visit and that brings even more business.
"There is an enormous amount of other ways in which Griz athletics makes the economy larger," Barkey said.
Specifically for football, Barkey noted how the state of Montana is a tourist draw for a number of reasons already, but sports is unique in that a lot of people visiting come from other parts of the state as well as outside of Montana as well.
"Griz football has been kind of a model for how a school of modest size can engender the same kind of loyalty and fan support and just sheer numbers coming to games that a lot of other schools don't have," Barkey said. "There's bigger and smaller fish out there but for a community our size I wouldn't say it's unique but it's certainly among the larger economic footprints of any program like ours.
"Collegiate athletics has been both kind of a mission of educating student-athletes and it's also a big business. And it's a big business for the Missoula community as well."
That business carries over to places like the Press Box. Known as the "home of the Griz" the Press Box is where the coaches shows typically take place and have large amounts of televisions for fans to watch any sport if they can't make the live game.
So when Griz football is here, places like the Press Box are riding high with business.
"It's our bread and butter," Press Box manager Paul Maki said. "It's for the whole weekend it starts out Friday and it'll roll through Sunday morning into NFL games and it's great.
"The fall is a lot busier due to school coming back as well as Grizzly football. There's just a lot of action and excitement around that."
Maki added that away games for the Griz are still busy at the Press Box, but it tends to be all local people. But for home games, they're jam-packed with fans from inside Missoula and beyond.
If UM football is a go but no fans are allowed in the stadium, would local restaurants and bars maybe even see a boom since more could flock there to watch on TV if guidelines allowed? Would fans gather outside of the stadium instead? That's tough to predict, but no fans could mean less visitors, and at the end of the day, fewer visitors coming into Missoula means less money adding to the local economy.
So now, Griz football, athletics as a whole and local businesses wait with held breath as July begins and each season hangs in the balance.
"It'll be tough. I think the people in sports and I think Montanans as well, the fans are pretty creative in terms of how they solve the problem," Barkey said. "Rome wasn't built in a day as they say and it's going to be hard to come up with a brand new model for sports to replace the one that we've been following for decades if not a century of people piling into the stadium and cheering their hearts out for the team.
"Anything that brings visitors in is helpful but let's face it the whole reason why this is challenged is because of these crowds themselves are something that is really challenged with a contagious virus that has no cure."
To see how an altered or canceled season would affect the Montana athletic department, click here.