Wag the Tail

On several lovely Saturdays every fall, the Vols beat Knoxville. It's payback time.


Just after the Vols's first game scotched our perennial hopes for a perfect season, it may be as good a time as any to reconsider Knoxville's annual prostration before the phenomenon of Game Day. We have seven home games coming up this year. Most Saturdays from now until Thanksgiving, the city will witness a Tennessee Vols home game.

They'll be fun for the minority of Knoxvillians who have tickets to go to the games, and perhaps for those who like to spend an autumn day watching several hours of TV sports. For everybody else, Game Day in Knoxville is a pretty dull prospect.

Fall would seem to be the best time to be here; no season offers better weather. But over the years, city officials have explained to us that it's impossible to contemplate a regular fall festival. People can't expect it on the first Saturday of October, for example; as often as not, that's a UT home game. And you can't plan for before or after the game, because the network executives in Los Angeles decide what time the game's going to be, and therefore how Knoxvillians are going to spend their Saturdays.  

So most of the city just shuts down. We surrender a full day for one game with a 60-minute clock.

Wedding planners avoid game days. Clarence Brown doesn't put on shows. In Knoxville, it's understood that we're not to have community picnics, or charity walkathons, or estate sales, or symphony performances, or bike-club rides, or street fairs, or wine-tastings, or golf tournaments, or track-club races, which might otherwise seem like a great idea.

Music promoters work around game days; outdoor shows, or concerts at the Tennessee or Bijou are rare. It doesn't matter whether you're a Vol fan or not. For ORNL engineers, graphics designers at HGTV, grad students in molecular biology, or Grainger County farmers trying to sell some tomatoes, the message seems to be that if you're in Knoxville, you're not supposed to be doing anything on Game Day except cheering on those Vols. There was an era when the town closed on Sundays because everybody was expected to be at church; seeing a play or having a party would be an offense to God. Knoxville's game-day pattern has become, in effect, its own kind of blue law.

We even change traffic laws to suit the game. Traffic patterns shift to get fans to and from the game, and anyone who has other destinations is, on that day, a dangerous annoyance.

UT sports can seem something like the tail wagging the Knoxville dog. Neyland Stadium could seat only one-seventh of the Knoxville MSA. Given that a large number of fans come from elsewhere, the percentage of Knoxville-area citizens who make it to Neyland Stadium on any given game day is almost certainly in the single digits. If you have an event on a game day, and nobody shows up, it's probably not because they're at the game.

Still, those Saturdays, the whole city does seem to sag a little. It may be a self-fulfilling prophecy: people assume no one will attend city events on Game Day, therefore such events don't get scheduled, therefore no one attends them. The assumptions of event planners form one reason the city beyond UT seems anemic on game days. On a fall Saturday, Knoxville can seem like an overgrown teenager who has never quite gotten beyond playing air guitar to heavy metal. Sure, it's fun, but it's a big world out there, kid.

There are tentative signs of branching out. The new movie theater downtown is hardly a mile from the stadium, and seems unlikely to bow to downtown's game-day hush. This Saturday, we bet most of the new shops downtown will be open for business and making sales.

And last October, AC Entertainment scheduled a show by rock band Broken Social Scene at the Bijouâ"on the day of the home game against longtime rival Alabama. The Bijou sold hundreds of tickets, filling half the theater. No big shows are yet scheduled for home-game days this year, but last year's exception is a crack through which we can see some light, evidence that the city may be diversifying its interests. If just a little bit.

Other cities have their equivalents of the Vols, a home team everybody's proud of. There may be no other city of Knoxville's size in America that so thoroughly abolishes every other option as ours does. The city's too big and too diverse to surrender seven of the best days of every year entirely to the Big Orange, as much as we might admire the lads. Let's wish the Vols the best, but also try something different one of these Saturdays for the non-ticket-holding majority. Throw a garden party, produce an avant-garde ballet, mount a ragtime revival, have a Columbus Day parade. Something.


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