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Archive for Sunday, December 9, 2001

Driving for profits

Turnaround with new KU coach could spur business

December 9, 2001

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Mark Mangino's hiring to turn around the Kansas University football program one day could be a big hit with businesses right here in Lawrence.

Just ask the folks 90 miles to the west.

Kansas University Athletics Director Al Bohl doesn't want to see
any more rows and rows of empty seats during a KU football game. He
hopes to fill those seats and bring some profits to KU's football
program and Lawrence with the hiring of Mark Mangino.

Kansas University Athletics Director Al Bohl doesn't want to see any more rows and rows of empty seats during a KU football game. He hopes to fill those seats and bring some profits to KU's football program and Lawrence with the hiring of Mark Mangino.

Kansas State's football program has become so successful during the past decade that green, not purple, has become the official color in more ways than one for some Manhattan businesses.

Varney's Bookstore, a retailer of K-State merchandise, recently had to start dressing its employees in green shirts the only way managers could pick them out from the throng of purple-clad people who now fill the business' two downtown stores every home football weekend.

The purple people also pump plenty of green into the registers. Steve Levin, the store's assistant manager, said it was difficult even to compare business today to the dark days of the 1980s, when the joke was that the only bowl KSU would ever go to was the Toilet Bowl.

"What we would have considered a good football Saturday back in those days, we do more business on a Monday after a game now," Levin said. "On a Saturday these days, we do more business in the first hour than we ever did in a whole day back then."

Manhattan businesses will tell you their economic turnaround began in 1989 when Bill Snyder was hired as the program's football coach. People routinely talk about "Before Snyder" and "After Snyder" in Wildcat country.

With KU's hiring last week of Mangino a former K-State and Oklahoma assistant coach some in Lawrence are beginning to wonder if Jayhawk football can become an economic engine, too.

Bill Sepic, president of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, looked on optimistically from the audience during Tuesday's welcome-to-campus meeting for Mangino.

"It's important for people to understand that this is economics here," Sepic said, watching people wish the new coach well. "This isn't just fun and games."

Fill 'er up

The economic formula has a lot to do with the number of rear ends that are in the seats at Memorial Stadium. A consistent increase in attendance at KSU Stadium has been the most visible and most profitable change in the Wildcat football program.

Before Snyder's arrival, attendance at Kansas State home games had hit a rock bottom, with the Wildcats drawing fewer than 19,000 fans. Today you can count on the expanded stadium filling all 50,250 seats, plus how many ever thousand people the dozens of Manhattan bars and restaurants can squeeze around a television set.

Sepic said that was the type of situation Lawrence businesses should be rooting for, too.

"The chamber of commerce would give its eye teeth to see the stands filled with blue," Sepic said.

"It will mean sold-out hotels, more people downtown shopping, more KU merchandise being produced. It will impact lots of businesses."

The man sitting atop Mt. Oread agrees that the community, in addition to the university, has a significant stake in the future of KU football.

"A successful athletics program clearly can have a strong economic development impact on a community," Kansas University Chancellor Robert Hemenway said. "I have to tell you, I have every confidence that is the type of thing that can occur here at KU and Lawrence."

Planning for 60,000

One thing the KU football program has going for it is room for growth. Kansas home football games averaged a crowd of about 40,000 people this year in a stadium with seating for 50,250.

KU Athletics Director Al Bohl is driving for more.

"It would be my dream that we start averaging about 60,000 people because we'll start putting seats on the track and making room for people who will want to be there," Bohl said.

An additional 20,000 people consistently crammed into Memorial Stadium on football Saturdays could do something else to spur the economy force fans to arrive earlier and stay later.

Sepic, who previously held chamber positions in Iowa and Minnesota, said he knew that was the result in Big Ten football country.

"In those places you go to the game early because you have to order in to get a spot and also because you want to be around the atmosphere," Sepic said. "And every time you get there early, there always will be some family members who will go out and shop and spend money away from the stadium.

"That's what we want to see. We want to see it become an 8 a.m to 8 p.m. event."

Or longer. Brad Everett, general manager of Manhattan's Fairfield Inn, said motels had been a major beneficiary of KSU's on-field success.

"You can't build a business on just six weekends a year, but it helps quite a bit," Everett said. "We're able to generate a real premium for our rooms on those weekends. We're probably able to adjust our rates up by 20 percent and I'm sure some properties adjust up even more than that."

Intangible factors

Not all benefits will be so easy to measure. Like how much would it be worth to have your city's name and images on national television virtually every week?

Lawrence already receives that perk during much of basketball season, and Sepic said that was why Lawrence hadn't an even greater opportunity than many college towns.

"We already have the basketball team that is in the top 10 in the country, year in and year out," Sepic said. "If we could get in the situation of having a top-ranked football team every year, too, then you would have people from across the nation hearing about Lawrence, Kansas, every week for about eight months out of the year.

"We can't buy that type of advertising. We can't buy that type of image building."

Jumping on the bandwagon

But what also is hard to measure is how likely local business owners believe such success will come their way. Bohl said it would come because the university was intent on improving the football "product."

Bill Muggy, owner of the Jayhawk Bookstore, has heard that before. He hopes Bohl's plans bear fruit because he has seen the effects a successful athletics team can have on sales.

His store sales of KU merchandise in 1988 when the school's basketball team won the national championship more than tripled for the year.

He also knows a successful football team may create even more potential because of the larger crowds and the tendency for fans to stay the weekend.

But ...

"I'll put it this way: I have seen a fair number of coaches come in here with great expectations, so I'll be cautious in my enthusiasm," Muggy said. "I sure hope it happens, but KU football has been depressed for so long that it really is going to take a major change before us businesses feel the impact."

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