Big House, Big Loss: Michigan Football's Lost Season Creates Economic Uncertainty In Ann Arbor

It's a September morning, a few hours before the scheduled kickoff of the first home game of the season for the University of Michigan Wolverines football team. It's an unseasonably hot day, sunny and humid, especially for early fall in Ann Arbor. My college roommate, who has attended a home game every year since we graduated in 1985, is in for his yearly visit.

Pre-Game Rituals Only A Memory

As usual, we head to a jam-packed M-Den Store, so he can add to his large collection of Michigan paraphernalia. This time he selects a hat to protect himself from the blazing sun. As usual, the line is out the door with fans, many of whom are students, faculty and alumni, accompanied by their families; they're all eager to purchase some Michigan swag.

As of now, this is a fantasy. The cherished tradition of attending college football games has been interrupted, not only in Ann Arbor but on college campuses throughout the country, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At this time, the Big 10 and a few major conferences have decided to postpone their season until the spring, and some have scrapped the entire season for good.

Putting aside the fan perspective on this interruption, consider the economic impact it's going to have on the city of Ann Arbor, as well as other college towns.

How will the absence of over 100,000 fans and all the needed employees affect the stores, hotels, restaurants and other businesses that thrive on the influx of people to the town for one game? What about the total for the six previously scheduled contests in Ann Arbor this season?

How It Impacts One Ann Arbor Business

Scott Hirth, part-owner of the M-Den, a longstanding family business, had to deal with the crisis on two different fronts. First and foremost, Hirth said he considered the well-being of his employees.

Just as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was ramping up restrictions in the state in early March, Hirth was already in the process of shutting down his stores when an employee was tested for COVID-19.

From a business standpoint, instead of stockpiling gear for the upcoming Big 10 and NCAA basketball tournament, as well as spring football practice, Hirth had to adjust to meet the current needs of his limited customer base.

He acknowledged the formidable challenge of having no students on campus, no summer orientations and sports camps and no would-be students and families touring the campus.

With thousands of student graduations interrupted by the crisis, Hirth and his staff worked feverishly to alter the inventory to make virtual celebrations more enjoyable. Due to the hard work of his staff and his loyal online customer base, M-Den did just that.

Moving forward, Hirth said he’s grateful to have been able to maintain his full-time staff until his stores reopened June 11. Although the loss of business was substantial, the online business helped to buffer the loss in the absence of providing customers with the usual in-person service.

Hirth said he's “optimistic” his business operations will be back to normal in the not-so-distant future.

Cafe Zola owner Alan Zakalik. Photo by Emily Elconin.

Post-Game Ritual

Win, lose or tie, dinner in downtown Ann Arbor is always on the menu. My favorite restaurant is Cafe Zola, which is always packed with fans anxiously waiting to devour the world cuisine that parallels the city’s international culture. Included are a wide variety of Mediterranean dishes inspired by partner Hediye Batu, who is of Turkish descent. There are also a few Polish dishes, courtesy of the other owner, Alan Zakalik who hails from Poland.

Shortly after closing on March 10, these restaurateurs quickly realized they were not well-equipped enough to provide robust carry-out or curbside service. Instead, they attempted to adjust on-the-fly in order to keep key staff working. Unfortunately, these efforts did not come close to reproducing Cafe Zola’s pre-coronavirus business.

Upon reopening in June at a 50% occupancy rate, the restaurant has begun to recover. Aided by the city of Ann Arbor, which has eased up on outdoor dining restrictions, and the state, with respect to the service of alcohol, the increased patio size has brought back a significant number of grateful customers, Zakalik said.

Cafe Zola isn’t as dependent on home games for business as M-Den.

“Athletics have an impact on our business only six to eight weekends per year, when fans and alumni come to town,” Zakalik said. “Our fun environment makes it a year-round business.”

Zakalik is cautiously optimistic about the future, and said he’s well aware that some experts predict the economy will see a 30% reduction in the total number of restaurants by the time the pandemic’s effects have receded. He is “appreciative and thankful” to the city of Ann Arbor, as well as his loyal customers, for support during these uncertain times.

No Graduation, Football, Art Fair, Conventions, Travelers

Perhaps no sector is more dependent on the constant stream of travelers to Ann Arbor than the lodging industry. Veteran general manager DeWayne Grann, of Dahlmann Properties, said he’s witnessing this decline in traffic resulting in millions of dollars of losses.

While many other local businesses reopened in June, the Bell Tower Hotel, an Ann Arbor staple since 1947, just recently reopened Aug. 10. The reason, Grann said: “No demand.”

The hotel staff received 100% of their salary while the hotel was shuttered, Grann said.

Bell Tower Hotel. Photo by Emily Elconin.

With demand beginning to pick up coinciding with the start of the fall semester, the hotel has reopened and is adhering to strict safety standards. All employees and guests are scanned for fevers; Mann said a meter reader for the electric company was recently turned away when his temperature was read.

The Bell Tower’s breakfast occupancy has been reduced from 100 chairs to 25; no food can be touched by guests until their selections are ready to eat.

Despite the pervasive uncertainty of the last few months, Grann said he remains “optimistic” a cure or vaccine will be found soon, allowing a return to prior travel habits.

Closer To Home

These are unprecedented occurrences, ones previously unseen by Michigan’s celebrated football team; it's a program that has been a source of enjoyment and profit since 1879.

As a lifelong fan, as well as being the proud father of a fourth-generation graduate, it's unfathomable to me that our season ticket seats, in the family for three generations, will be vacant this fall.

Besides watching the actual game, I will miss so many more events on Saturdays. There will be no more attending elaborate tailgates and mingling with friends old and new. Absent will be the triumphant notes of the college band as it inspires fans with “Hail to the Victors.” Notwithstanding all these traditions and more, the thing I will miss most might seem odd.

At almost every home game, as the band is winding down by playing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I always tilt my head to the south in anticipation of experiencing the rumbling of three military jets as they do a fly-by over the top of Michigan Stadium.

When the COVID-19 crisis subsides, perhaps we can all learn not to take so much for granted. As I have gathered with my family and friends during the last several months, it has made me realize how fortunate I have been to be afforded the luxury of attending games with them over the past five decades.

The next time I am able to attend, it will take on a whole new meaning I never could have imagined.

Joel (class of 1985) and Dayna Elconin (class of 2014) outside The Big House in 2000.

Posted In: Ann ArborCoronavirusNCAAUniversity of MichiganRestaurantsSportsTop StoriesExclusivesInterviewGeneral