cover_story (2005-41)

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Kristi Johnson’s uncle didn’t show up at her wedding. Not because he didn’t want to be there, and not because he didn’t care; it was just bad timing. To wit: His niece’s wedding kicked off in sync with the weekend’s big home game, the University of Tennessee vs. Georgia, and he couldn’t let his season ticket go to waste.

Fortunately, Johnson doesn’t take her uncle’s diehard preoccupation with football too personally. “I know he loves me, and I guess that’s all that matters,” she says. The 25-year-oldSouth Knoxville resident explains that she’d always wanted an October wedding, and no citywide obsession was going to keep her from getting it—especially since she and fiancé, Kevin Ramsey, couldn’t care less about the sport. In fact, it didn’t even occur to them that their wedding might conflict with guests’ game-day rituals until a caterer brought it to their attention. Johnson recalls, “I told him, well, that’s fine, because if they don’t come I won’t have to pay for them to eat, either.” 

 

When it comes to butting heads with Knoxville’s most popular autumn pastime, Johnson’s irreverence is the exception rather than the rule.  Most of us simply wash game-related inconveniences down with a grumble and a sigh; Knoxville’s a football town—get used to it. After all, even the staunchest disregard can’t ward off the myriad logistical problems that a home game presents. In between repeated assurances that she’s “not worried,” Johnson admits she harbored concerns about game-day traffic and that if she’d invited more out-of-town wedding guests, lodging would’ve been an issue, too.

All non-football-related game-day activities, from family reunions to corporate conventions, face similar challenges. Even funerals have their share of difficulties. Football and death may seem like strange bedfellows, but according to Skip Wheeler, director of Rose Mortuary, the two do share a common denominator. “If we have a funeral procession, there are times when we just have to avoid certain routes to avoid football traffic,” he explains. With locations on Kingston Pike and Broadway, two main arteries into the heart of football country, Wheeler’s caution is understandable.

Open dates, or Saturdays without scheduled football games, present their own unique dilemma. Since nobody wants to compete with a UT game, festivals pile up and run the risk of competing against one another for crowds.  Meanwhile, alternative entertainment sources during home games are as rare as free, convenient game-day parking spots.

“The atmosphere of football is overridingly the factor in how people plan their weekends,” says Mickey Mallonee, director of Knoxville’s Office of Special Events. “Everyone tries to take advantage of the off-weekends, so there’s always multiple events scheduled for those days.”

According to this year’s Special Events calendar, there’s an average of six non-football city events planned for each open date Saturday; 4.14 events for each away game Saturday (including the SEC championship); and 1.83 events for each home game Saturday.

Repeat offenders include the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and the Knoxville Opera Company—which makes sense when considered in a historical context. The high arts, considered the last bastion of civilized man by some aesthetes, have a stubborn tendency to stand their ground until the bitter end, retaining their focus even after audiences have lost their own. 

During the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s, for instance, as bombs rained down upon Barcelona for three years without pause, an opera or symphony was performed each afternoon in the city’s grand opera house.  Spanish civilians flocked to these performances, as they had nothing better to do and little else to spend their wages on—there was no food in the city to speak of, and material purchases could be blown to splinters at any moment.

In Knoxville, on the other hand, convincing the average orange-blooded civilian to sit through a performance of Don Quixote while the game’s on is a consistently tough sell. It’s a different culture and a different time, of course, but the battleground is familiar, and the stakes remain relevant today. What rights do we have to day-to-day normalcy? When a seasonal force disengages us from that normalcy, how do we respond? Who’s willing to take a stand?

“It’s a roll of the dice and we’re probably going to lose, but what can you do,” says Don Townsend, Knoxville Opera Company production manager. “It’s just the fun of living in a college town in the South. We’ll hope for the best.”

Townsend’s hope is commendable. It’s certainly a braver response to game-day pandemonium than that of UT’s own Clarence Brown Theatre, whose curtains remain tightly drawn.

 

Resistance, by its nature, requires an opposing force against which to knock its head. In this case, that force is substantial. But why

Economics play a starring role, thanks in part to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Athletic Department’s colossal checkbook. UTKAD is a separate fiscal entity from the university, though the department’s willingness to share its wealth is often noted. According to the department’s 2004 annual report, it gave $1.375 million in academic scholarships to non-athlete students and $6.06 million in scholarships to student-athletes during the 2003-04 fiscal year. It also provided over $13 million dollars in athletic benefits for university employees and students through free or reduced-rate tickets to sporting events.

But this benevolence pales in comparison to the revenue the department is drawing in—much of which it claims is being funneled back into the local economy. A report prepared by UT Business Professor William Fox proposes that, during the 2003-04 fiscal year, UTKAD created nearly $104 million in total income for the Knoxville Metropolitan Statistical Area; supported 2,806 full-time jobs; and generated nearly $412 million in sales and amusement tax revenue. In addition, visitor and fan spending attributed to UTKAD football and basketball events produced $41 million in income. On average, according to Fox’s report, 43 cents of every dollar spent at athletic events becomes personal income in the MSA.

The image of a game-show money booth, one of those wind-chambers you have 30 seconds to stand inside and grasp for dollar bills, comes to mind. In reality, however, only a few local businesses are inside that mythical booth, stuffing their pockets with cash.

“Actually, our business is not good on game days,” explains Judi Brockman, who owns Crouch Florist & Gifts on Cumberland Avenue. “People on the Strip aren’t looking for flowers on a game day, even though we do also have a lot of UT paraphernalia and UT gourmet baskets. They’re looking for food, hats, sweatshirts.”

Shannon Greene, office manager and co-owner of The Foundry, claims she can’t rent out her World’s Fair Park banquet facilities on a home game Saturday to save her life, thanks to limited parking and hotel availability. “We can’t even get anything scheduled for Dec. 3 because of the possibility of an SEC championship. We have Friday-night weddings and Sunday weddings, but there are no Saturday home game weddings.”

Other businesses thrive on game-day activity. At Rocky Top Books East on Cumberland Avenue, assistant manager Drew Harrell claims that business picks up at about 3 p.m. on Friday and doesn’t slow down until just before kickoff. Located at a crossroads of game-day foot traffic, the “bookstore” makes more revenue selling UT paraphernalia than it

The only variable that can put a crimp in Harrell’s profit is the final score. “If we win, everyone wants to go out; if we lose, everyone goes home. It affects businesses not just on the strip but all over town. It even affects the next week’s sales,” he explains.

Kickoff times also impact business. Brandon Rogers, an employee of Earth to Old City, says that while the Market Square gift store he works at tends to empty out during the game itself—“By the time it starts, it’s just us and the echo of fireworks,”— pre- and post-game rushes can still push revenue over par.

Sean Blair, general manager of Old City bar/restaurants Patrick Sullivan’s, Back Room Barbeque and Manhattan’s, also predicts business volume by the time of the game. Noon games are quiet because everyone’s trying to get to campus, mid-afternoon games draw sizable lunch crowds, and evening games leave the Old City resembling “a ghost town.” 

He adds, on a non-business related note, “If you know how to use the game to your advantage, it can be a wonderful thing. If you need to get out to the Kroger for a head of lettuce, there’s nobody there. If you need to take the kids to Wal-Mart, it’s empty. It’s a great time to get out and about.”

But Blair’s observation gives rise to skepticism about the economic impact numbers UTKAD is so eager to crunch; how does one account for business lost at all those empty Krogers and Wal-Marts? And what percent of that estimated $41 million in revenue would’ve ended up in Knoxvillians’ pockets anyway?

 

Other aspects of Knoxville’s preoccupation with football don’t fit into a calculator.

Kevin Quirk, a Charlottesville, Va., relationship counselor, is the author of Not Now, Honey, I’m Watching the Game , a self-help guide for sports addicts and their significant others. Although he typically counsels on an individual-to-individual basis, he says the principles of sports-addiction psychology are applicable on a larger scale.   

“The hook of sports is that they offer a chance to be part of something bigger than ourselves—something that seems more alive and more compelling than the stuff of day-to-day life,” he explains. “We get hooked by the drama of sports. Where else in life is anything so clear-cut, so black and white? Every week ‘we’ either win or lose, and either come closer to our ultimate goal of a championship or get painfully knocked down from the dream.”

In some instances, according to Quirk, this “hook” can transcend reasonable interest and evolve into an obsession. “Living through your team becomes a handy way to avoid or hide from the more pressing questions and problems in your own life—the personal strategies needed to make life more of what it can be,” he says. “Feeling like we are one of ‘the Vols’ or whatever team can become a stand-in for other forms of connection and engagement.”

Whether or not football negatively affects Knoxville’s collective consciousness is uncertain, but the sport is clearly a fundamental element of the city’s identity. By extension, football fans tend to view people who don’t share their connection to the team as people who don’t “get it.” As Quirk puts it, “It’s hard to associate with [non-sports fans] because they are ‘lost’ in life, rather than being swept up in this pseudo-life.”

Alternately, non-football fans may begin to feel cut off from the city’s identity. Responses to this perceived alienation range from feigned interest to outright contempt. 

“The non-fanatic needs to speak up about what they see and feel and not cave in to the dominant attitude. They need to do so respectfully, of course, but also boldly,” says Quirk. “Movement needs to begin with the desire for change and a belief that change is both positive and possible.”

Like Johnson and Ramsey, who uttered their marriage vows during the UT-Georgia game, some Knoxvillians’ rebellions simply consist of carrying on with their lives.

 

Four hours before 12:30 kickoff, Don Perkins’ rust-bucket pickup sputters into its usual parking spot on Market Square. The tailgate drops with a clatter, and the sun-wizened farmer sets to work unloading an unlikely assortment of game-day fare: stringy vines of thumbnail-sized tomatoes, baskets of knobby pears, waxen peppers, condensation-flecked freezer bags of okra and beans.

The morning’s pastel haze is already lifting from square, exposing parallel rows of like-minded Farmers’ Market vendors. Most sip coffee and chat cordially with one another, but Perkins just nods at the occasional passerby. Some of them, en route from a downtown hotel to Neyland Stadium, are costumed in various assemblages of game-day attire. “They pass through here,” Perkins says. “A few stop. Most don’t.”

In truth, the only orange he’s concerned with today is a dusty pumpkin he’s brought along to sell, though its adoption seems unlikely. Of the 108,000 or so people who’ve driven into town to watch the game, few are in the market for a 15-pound fruit.

In the quiet of the square, it’s difficult to fathom the chaos that’s beginning to erupt just a quarter mile away. Henley Street is already a blinking parade of brake lights; the orange masses will soon be setting up their tents, dumping charcoal into grills, strategically arranging television sets and outdoor sound systems. Ticket scalpers will claim street-corner territories. Bars will swell to capacity. Some might argue that, in game-day Knoxville, there’s no room for apathetic sentiments toward their beloved Vols.      

Farmers’ Market co-founder Charlotte Tolley begs to differ. “I just don’t think everything should revolve around football. I’m not going to let it rule my life. People avoid this whole area because they know there will be traffic, and parking is an issue, but we have our regulars who are here regardless.”

Across the city, other Knoxvillians share the Market vendors’ resolve. By halftime, author Catherine Landis is at Carpe Librum Booksellers, hosting a book signing for her newest work, Harvest . “The game didn’t even enter into my mind. It didn’t enter into the equation. I wouldn’t not read at Carpe Librum because of a UT football game.”

And in Fountain City, the Central High School Marching Band is taking to its own football field as a participant in the Fountain City Marching Band Festival. Lisa Burden, assistant band director, explains, “It’d be nice for them to see the game, but they understand that they have a job to do. I haven’t heard any of these kids complain.”

Today is also Fall Festival at Mountain Song School, during which preschoolers, kindergarteners and their parents gather to celebrate the arrival of fall. “We actually made the school calendar without any knowledge of the football season or its schedule,” says Dawn Pollard, the school’s head teacher. “Most people attending have young children anyway, so they’re happy to get out to a festival. 

 

Such optimism is admirable, but most event organizers prefer investing their time and energy in less-risky options. As a result, open dates tend to bulge with festivals and activities. The events’ close proximity to one another, whether geographically or simply calendar-wise, seems problematic, but it can actually work to an event’s advantage. If there are four festivals going on downtown on a single Saturday, for instance, the individual crowds may co-mingle, bolstering each of the festivals’ attendances.

Of course, this isn’t always the case. Consider the first open date of this year, Sept. 10. Multiple events were planned citywide: Tennessee Valley Fair at Chilhowee Park, Slayer-Con in the Marriott, the HeartSong Festival on Market Square, a light show at Volunteer Marina, a road race on Neyland Drive, and Bentfork Bike Fest on the World’s Fair Park lawn.

Michael Branning, organizer of the motorcycle rally, had lofty plans for his inaugural event, anticipating the participation of over 10,000 motorcycle enthusiasts from across the country. But the festival’s engine failed to properly turn over. Instead of the lush quilting of vendors and visitors he had envisioned, the weekend was met with threadbare attendance; only 3,000 wristbands were distributed, including those given to the vendors themselves.

It would be easy to blame competing events for the poor turnout, but Branning claims instead that the festival fizzled out due to his own inexperience as an event planner. After all, he was targeting a special interest crowd, not the general public.

“We tried to grass-root it, and it didn’t work,” he explains. “I think a lot of our deal was the tight budget we were on and not being able to promote it through the right channels. We were so concerned with reaching people nationally that we didn’t focus on the local aspect.”

Likewise, event-to-event competition doesn’t concern Kris Lutz, co-coordinator of Brewers’ Jam. The popular beer festival has taken place on open date Saturdays for the past three years (before that, it was held in the summer or spring), and it has seen an increase in crowds each year.

“[Brewers’ Jam] is unique unto anything else that’s going on in East Tennessee, so we think that there’s not really any competition for what we do. Plus, it’s had nine years to build up a reputation,” she says.

Lutz does take vendor availability into account, scheduling Brewers’ Jam around other regional brew fests’ dates. “If we can get the brewers here, the crowds usually follow,” she explains. “Our main concern is not competing events so much as the weather.”

The brew fest’s late founder Tom Rutledge did extensive research on weather and found October to be the driest month. That it’s also at the core of football season was of little consequence.

 

Other event planners maintain a still different philosophy regarding the relationship between football Knoxville and non-football Knoxville—one of compromise.  

“You cannot live in this area and avoid UT football. You’ve just got to have fun with it, because it’s a phenomenon you just cannot describe to an outsider,” says the Knoxville Opera Company’s Townsend. “Normally, we try to avoid scheduling against UT games as much as possible, but sometimes you just don’t have a choice.”

This year, the company’s annual Opera Ball is scheduled on the same day as the UT-Memphis game,

Townsend’s situation is aided by recently improved perceptions of game-day travel; getting out of the house doesn’t seem quite as daunting as it used to. And more advances are on the way. Tennessee Department of Transportation’s new SmartWay Intelligent Transportation System network, which went into effect this fall, was declared a success after the first football game. The network uses over 70 cameras to monitor interstates throughout Knoxville and communicates delays to traveling motorists via 16 overhead message boards.

“We’re very happy with the results,” says TDOT’s regional Communications Relations Officer Travis Brickey. “I think we’re pretty good at identifying where the problems are and trying to do some adjustments. We have a responsibility not just to the fans, but also to people who are just passing through.”

This bodes well for businesses like Rothchild Catering, which is now experiencing unprecedented business after years of game-day stagnation. On the UT-Georgia game date, for instance, the company catered four weddings and a seminar, a respectable agenda even for a non-football weekend. Owner Susan Rothchild explains, “Although I think that orange rules this time of the year, I think Knoxville has become diversified enough that there are people who still participate in other things. I’ve definitely seen a trend, at least at our location, where even on game days we seem to be able to have events that are not sports-oriented.”

Admittedly, she still allows the caterers to keep a portable television and radio in the kitchen on game days. “We are avid fans here,” Rothchild says. “You can usually walk back there and hear a cheer go up for somebody.”

 

Even the most ravenous UT fans may find themselves occasionally, if inadvertently, sitting in the opponent’s section when it comes to game-day event planning.

Bride-to-be Tarah Massey, for instance, never expected her wedding to fall on the five-yard line of football season—Nov. 19, the UT-Vanderbilt home game—since she and her fiancé, Justin Wilson, are both season ticket-holding football devotees. But the couple also hadn’t anticipated a late-September phone call from the Air National Guard, informing Wilson that he would be deployed to Texas within the next year for refueling pilot training. Furthermore, he’d be given only a week’s notice before he had to move.

“I thought it was a joke,” says Massey, who already had deposits down on a wedding next summer. “If he moves to Texas, I can’t see him or live with him if we’re not married. It came down to, if we don’t get married now, we’re not getting married for two more years.”

So the Nov. 19 date was chosen, and provisions will be made for the game. “We’re telling everybody to just think of it as the biggest tailgate party they’ve ever been to,” Massey says, enthusiastically pointing out the situation’s bright side. “At least it’s not a huge game. If it was Florida, we’d probably be having our wedding in the parking lot of the stadium.”

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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