An inside look at WVU sports’ score with the local economy.

WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY JESS WALKER


$aturday, the sun rises over Morgantown as coach buses and minivans flood off of I-79. Athletes and families fill hotels within a 5-mile radius. Famished sports fans pack restaurants like WVU students cramming into a PRT car.

But crumpled napkins toss like tumbleweeds through Milan Puskar Stadium’s seats. The Coliseum’s parking lot is a barren desert void of cars.

No, these intrepid fans aren’t amped for a WVU football game or basketball showdown. They’re headed to the Mylan Park Aquatic Center to watch swimmers glide like dolphins and divers fall spectacularly. Or perhaps they’re headed next door to the Track & Field Complex, where pole vaulters fling themselves into the sky and sprinters run as if trying to break the sound barrier.

Sports is big business. West Virginia’s lack of professional teams means universities feed fans’ fervor, and in Mountaineer Country we bleed blue and gold. But beyond the face paint, pepperoni rolls, and speakers blasting John Denver, a question emerges: Does WVU sports have an economic impact in Morgantown and West Virginia?

That’s exactly what Morgantown’s many voices teamed up to answer.

Off the Blocks

Talk about new swimming and track facilities has swirled for many a season. The antiquated Natatorium has housed WVU’s swimming and diving for nearly 45 years. The old outdoor track facility was in such disrepair, it hadn’t hosted home track meets for a decade.

Finally the starting horn sounded. The Hazel Ruby McQuain Charitable Trust gifted $15 million to kick-start the $48 million aquatic center and track and field complex. Mylan Park Foundation offered property and infrastructure, Paradigm Architecture designed the facility, and March-Westin Company built up that vision. “The facility elevates the status of the university athletics program,” says Jennifer Lainhart, associate director of programs and aquatics at Mylan Park. Previously there wasn’t much buzz about heading to Morgantown for an elite swim or track meet. Now that promises to change. “This will be a great chance for people in the swimming world and track world to think, ‘We’re going to go to West Virginia and host this national-level meet.’”

The Track & Field Complex finished first with a fall 2018 ribbon cutting. Mylan Park’s eight-lane track encompasses a netted grass infield so the potentially 1,800 spectators in the bleachers won’t miss a single hurdle, throw, or vault. It already hosted its first high school and collegiate meets this past spring. The Aquatic Center will follow by winter. The competition pool features state-of-the-art timing systems, a diving well with platforms up to 10 meters high, and private locker rooms and lounges. Swim teams statewide will compete there for the West Virginia State Games on November 1 and 2, the center’s inaugural meet. The lane is also wide open for hosting Big 12 Swimming and Diving Championships.

The community scores, too. Locals can purchase memberships and guests can enjoy day passes to swim laps or slip down water slides at a separate indoor community pool—even while competitions are underway across the hall. “The entire new swimming and track complex is going to be a bonus for us,” says Monongalia County Commissioner Tom Bloom. He says it’s an opportunity not only to host WVU meets but also high school, club, and other regional or national events. “We can’t stay where we are. We have to keep moving forward to compete with other areas.”

Mylan Park’s Coordinator of Competitive Aquatics and Track Ed Denny says past club swim meets like those of Club Mountaineer have drawn as many as several hundred kids, and that was in a smaller facility. “Say you’ve got 1,000 kids and two parents each,” he says. “That adds up to a lot of hotel rooms and a lot of restaurant meals.”

Taking Care of Business

In Morgantown, autumn nights are best spent under football stadium lights. When snow rolls into town, basketball fever heats up. Many people have long believed WVU had an effect on the local economy, but the exact dollars and cents were hazy.

Not anymore.

WVU Athletics tasked strategic consulting services Tripp Umbach with tallying the numbers during the 2017–18 academic year. The recently released findings were a slam dunk—an almost $303 million slam dunk. That’s the total statewide economic impact the findings say that, directly and indirectly, might not otherwise occur without the presence of WVU Athletics. Almost $79 million of that hits home right here in Monongalia County.

The vast majority of that impact can be attributed to fans and visitors’ spending across all Mountaineer sports. It’s no secret we’re already great fans. We show our love through jerseys sold, hotel rooms snored in, burgers inhaled, and car tanks filled.

Few things are better to spend hardearned cash on than, for example, wings and beer. Every home game, football fans trek across the road to Kegler’s Sports Bar & Grille. Just how many is hard to gauge. But General Manager Doug Moore says that, on any regular weekday, Kegler’s has one room of tables open. On game days, Kegler’s triples its size by opening two more rooms to accommodate the crowds.

Locals and alumni also visit Mario’s Fishbowl on Richwood Avenue. They catch up over countless chicken wings and frosty fishbowls as if the iconic hangout is the big living room of a friend’s house. Co-owner Kim Zweibaum says she sees families who return year after year, no matter how well the football team is doing. The Suncrest location also attracts basketball fans from the Coliseum. “At Suncrest during basketball season, it might as well be football season,” Zweibaum says.

Varsity Club is another hangout that’s just a hop, skip, and punt away from Milan Puskar Stadium. Its prime location wasn’t a happy accident. Owners Ernie and Bonnie Anderson loved WVU football—Ernie is a proud alum—and knew they wanted to run a sports tavern. “It’s all hands on deck for home football games,” says Bonnie Anderson. “We’re packed all day long.”

And all weekend long. Folks grab dinner Friday night, snag lunch Saturday, or celebrate with a postgame beverage. Anderson says Varsity Club’s traffic on game weekends increases by about 44 percent, and sports-related patrons don’t stop when the football players do. Summer youth clinics and sports camps at the stadium also bring customers.

Beyond boosting business revenues, sports also provide seasonal opportunities for nonprofit fundraising. The Suncrest United Methodist Church on Van Voorhis Road is one of many property owners who offers up asphalt for a little extra cash. The church has around 200 parking spaces and packs them solid at $30 a spot—tens of thousands of dollars raised for the season. Fans’ own rear ends need parking spots, too. Morgantown High School Band’s biggest fundraiser comes from students and families doling out thousands of rented cushioned seats and backs—supplied by IMG College Seating in partnership with Panhandle Cleaning and Restoration—for the stadium’s bleachers.

The Short Game

Look at the bumper-to-bumper cars and blinking traffic lights on football game days, and it’s easy to assume long lines mean equally long-lasting moola for Morgantown.

Not so fast, according to some data. It’s more nuanced than that.

WVU economist Brad Humphreys has spent the past two decades investigating the economics of sports. Whether or not game days have a long-term economic effect in a city is debatable, he says.

Here’s one point. While more people means more beds, gas tanks, and stomachs to fill, the fraction that really matters is fans who come in from outside the area. “If somebody comes to Morgantown who wouldn’t have come to Morgantown if the sporting event wasn’t taking place and spends money on consumer activities, then we count that as an economic benefit,” Humphreys says.

Take hotels. Some “heads on beds” are Mountaineer fans, but don’t count out our opponents—a different breed since WVU switched from the Big East to the Big 12 eight years ago. “Schools from the Big 12 travel very well, and they have taken up a lot of the hotel room spaces that normally would not have been taken up,” says County Commissioner Bloom. He says fans of faraway Big 12 rivals are more likely to come in at least a day early.

For the 2018 football season, two of the six home games counted as single days, as far as tourism impact: the Thursday night game against Baylor University and the Friday-after Thanksgiving game against the University of Oklahoma. For those dates, out-of-towners would typically stay just one night.

The other four home games were Saturday ones, meaning guests tended to stick around two days. For readers playing along at home, that’s a total of 10 days. In 2018, those 10 days generated an additional $2.6 million in hotel room revenue over average comparable days, says Susan Riddle, president and CEO of the Greater Morgantown Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The second point is that the money coming in from sporting events is a transitory boost, not necessarily long-term growth. “That’s not the reason Morgantown is growing faster than other cities in West Virginia,” Humphreys says. A football game or swim meet isn’t going to offer as much of a long-term economic benefit as, for example, a large company employing workers with high-paying jobs.

The Home Stretch

Businesses need locals to support them all year long. “Game days are unique, but we couldn’t survive on six Saturdays a year alone,” Anderson says of Varsity Club. And Morgantown has to be on top of its own tourism game year ’round. “We have a healthy sustainable economy on average. WVU just takes it up a notch,” Riddle says.

Humphreys would agree. He’s a WVU alum, Mountaineer sports fan, and season ticket holder. But what’s more important for economics is the university itself. “It’s tough to parse out the effect of intercollegiate sports from the effect of the overall university,” he says. Universities help create lots of jobs, bring a younger population to town, and generate cultural amenities. “There’s tremendous economic benefits from having a university in your city.”

Dollar signs aside, WVU makes Morgantown rich in entertainment. Fans rally around the Mountaineers with the same festive camaraderie other cities do for professional teams. They come early and stay late at tailgates. They cheer together as a sea of blue and yellow. Even those not in the stands plan their days around catching kickoff or tip-off on the big-screen.

As the sun sets on game day, two things are clear. Morgantown runs on more than sports—the area has natural wonders and downtown treasures that exist beyond courts, fields, and finish lines. However the power of sports cannot be ignored. No matter what, football fans are going to link arms as soon as “Take Me Home, Country Roads” begins to play. Basketball buffs are going to nosh on wings as players leap for the rim. And now newcomers are going to root on sprinters and swimmers until the final lap. The Mountaineers may not always win but, whether measuring in dollars and cents or just school spirit, their presence is a victory for Morgantown and West Virginia.

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Written by Jess Walker
Jess Walker came to West Virginia to pursue her master’s degree in English, but stayed for the culture, nature, and stories. She writes for WV Living and Morgantown magazines. Her best ideas happen when she’s outdoors, preferably near a river and with a cup of coffee in hand.