Football Obsession Squeezes Fall Festivals

No Vols! It's the new Knoxville holiday

Enjoy this Saturday, which the Vols' schedule has rendered a special sort of holiday. This year, through some alignment I'm not sure I understand, the Tennessee Vols have eight home games on their schedule. It seems to be the case most autumns, recently, that we have more home games than the statistically probable six. It's as if we always have more home games than average.

Whatever the reason, it makes our non-homegame Saturdays all the more precious.

Statistically, only a small minority of Knoxvillians attend any given home game, but all Knoxvillians, whether they follow the fortunes of the Tennessee Vols or not, whether they even consider football an advisable pursuit for our young, are obliged to respect the game, as you're obliged to respect a hurricane or a riot. On their weekly planners, TV meteorologists show, in the place where the icon indicating a thunderstorm with damaging winds would appear, a football helmet. There's a reason for that.

On game days, events unassociated with collegiate football are rare. Even the professional Clarence Brown Theatre, which occasionally hosts international directors and actors who weren't previously aware that American football is played in the college level, shuts down and does not allow performances of its plays on game days. They pay actors to be idle that day, because it's Game Day. Visiting actors are reliably astonished by that fact.

A lot of people are proud of that, and very often I overhear it in thumbnail descriptions of the city: When a resident describes Knoxville to a newcomer and has only one breath to do it, they say, "You won't believe how this city shuts down on game days."

Knoxville may be the largest city in America so thoroughly deferential to college football. There's value in all superlatives.

The problem is that it jams all other prospective fall events into a few Saturdays. And fall is otherwise regarded by Americans as the best season for festivals. Spring is nice, too, but in the spring, university students tend to be more nervous about finals, wage-earners tend to be nervous about tax day. People are worried about their gardens and lawns. Fall is beautiful and temperate.

Consider this coming weekend. It's an away game. It's Alabama.

Here in town, it's the East Tennessee Brewers' Jam, the biggest beer festival in our region, and one of Knoxville's biggest festivals of the year, with multiple bands and lots and lots of beer. It's the busiest single day of the month-long Agee Centennial Celebration, probably the biggest festival ever held concerning our best-known writer, and Saturday's once-in-a-lifetime showings of Agee-related films sound particularly fascinating. It's Art-a-Palooza at the Fountain City Arts Center, with live music, buggy rides, and a chili cook-off, and art displays in one of the area's most dynamic communities. There's a suicide-prevention fund-raiser walk-a-thon in West Knoxville's Anchor Park. There's the German Fest, the Gemuttlichkeit, at First Lutheran School, a rare local celebration of one of Knoxville's largest ethnic groups. There's a Monster Masquerade Cruise starting at Volunteer Landing. There are country fairs, church fairs, Boo! at the Zoo, the October Sky festival in Oliver Springs—all competing for our attention on this one rare day when the Vols are out of town. There are other events that organizers will be angry I didn't mention.

In Knoxville, an away game is, more or less, Mardi Gras. When the Vols are away, Knoxvillians will play.

I expect all these events to be popular; probably none will be quite as popular as they would be if they were more evenly spaced out across the fall. Some of these events clash directly, some indirectly. I know lots of people who want to go to both the beer festival and the Agee film festival, for example. If you ever wonder what happens to people who drink beer for eight hours, then sit in a darkened room watching old movies, come to Cafe 4 Saturday night and find out. Perhaps fortunately, Cafe 4 also sells beer—and coffee.

There's only one more non-home-game Saturday between now and Thanksgiving. Enjoy it.

ALL THAT ACTIVITY AND CONFLICT has to be factored into the paradox of the Vol economy.

The idea that the Vols are critical to Knoxville's economy is sacrosanct. I've been hearing it since I was in kindergarten. Without Volunteer football, the Knoxville economy would collapse. It's just true, and it's not our place to question it.

I'll understand it better by and by. A few seasons back, I asked random entrepreneurs about how game day affects their businesses, in terms or receipts at the end of the day. Some declined to answer. Some, especially fast-food places and bars and filling stations, say business for the Saturday as a whole is better. Some others, including certain gift shops, food markets, and even certain well-regarded sit-down restaurants, say it's worse. Not just that their customers are at the game, but that their customers dread driving around in central Knoxville on a game day.

"But don't put that in print," they would say. "We don't want to seem disloyal."

To the extent that Vol games do help the economy, we have to credit mainly visitors. Those Knoxvillians in orange and jamming Zaxby's and Sawyer's and Buffalo Wild Wings on game day might, if the Vols shut down for the year, get hungry anyway. (This is just a theory, but go with me here.) They might even be buying an equivalent amount of chicken at Kroger in Bearden or Halls, or going to a restaurant in more comfortable circumstances elsewhere.

For our economy's sake, we have to hope most Vol fans are non-Knoxvillians. Maybe the mayor should offer a tax credit and an official mayoral commendation to any Knoxvillian who sells, or donates, his season tickets to a Nashvillian or a Chattanoogan. They're the ones who bring in the real money.