Rita Ferguson never attended Virginia Tech, yet she's a Hokie all the same.
She didn't spend her college days pressing across the Drillfield as Blacksburg's whipping winds battered her from all directions, nor did she furiously cram for finals in a small nook in Newman Library or atop Torg Bridge.
So why is she retiring in Radford, just a few scant minutes from Blacksburg and Tech's campus? It mostly comes down to football.
Ferguson's husband is a Hokie, class of 1973. Her son graduated a full 30 years later in 2003.
But those ties alone don't explain why the Fergusons decided to pick up and move from Williamsburg to the New River Valley once they wrapped up their careers.
"We did not come on a steady basis for a number of years," Ferguson said. "It probably picked up more when my son was on campus, we came to visit him, and it was probably about then that we started with our season ticket purchase also...At that time, it was the Michael Vick era and the team was on fire."
Once the couple's game attendance picked up, so too did their time tailgating. That led to a fortuitous bit of good luck — the Fergusons bonded with three other couples assigned to the same parking lot, all of whom are Tech alumni.
"It's been amazing, we've formed a nuclear group of the four adult couples, and all of their children and grandchildren. It's like a family," Ferguson said. "Now, we're so close. We attend big events in each other's lives, we vacation sometimes together, we go to all the bowls, that's a big vacation for the entire group."
As they spent more and more time in Blacksburg together, Ferguson remembers the group searching for a more financially practical way to pay for lodging during their frequent returns to Southwestern Virginia. Rather than constantly paying for hotel rooms, the couples decided instead to simply buy a condo in town that they could use when they came back for games.
"We decided it was worth the investment," Ferguson said. "It wasn't a huge sum of money, and we all had football season tickets."
As the Fergusons neared retirement age, they decided to make the move permanent, picking out a lot for a home in a community near the Pete Dye River Golf Course in Radford.
"The football draw got us here more frequently and the more we got to know about the town and its offerings, we fell in love with the people in this part of the state," Ferguson said.
In many ways, Ferguson's experience is unique, but in many others, it's downright commonplace.
Not only did the success of Frank Beamer's squads help the Fergusons build an emotional connection with the area, but hidden within that narrative is a more tangible contribution to the community. The Fergusons and their friends poured a huge amount of money into the New River Valley's economy with their frequent visits, and they ended up accounting for a pair of real estate transactions as well.
That likely never would've happened without a football team worth watching, and Tech's teams rarely met that standard before Beamer's return to Blacksburg in 1987.
As the legendary coach prepares for his final home game, there will be an intense focus on the more intangible pieces of Beamer's legacy: The elation of big wins or the pride of the school's stature on a national stage.
But the dollars and cents behind the rise of football in Southwestern Virginia are equally deserving of examination. Accordingly, The Key Play spoke with dozens of business owners, government workers and politicians to understand the financial effects of football on the community, as fans flock to Blacksburg to watch the man largely responsible for such a tremendous economic boom coach one last game in Lane Stadium.
A $69 Million Business
There's no doubt that football's ascension means big business for Blacksburg and the surrounding area, but until this year, there were few concrete figures to reflect its fiscal impact.
In April, VT's Office of Economic Development published a study claiming that football brings roughly $69 million to the New River Valley each year, and supports just under 300 jobs in the region.
The study, commissioned and underwritten by both the athletics department and the Office of University Relations, was the first to examine the subject since 2000, and found dramatic increases in the dollar figures from that last measure of economic impact.
"We could never get a really good handle on sports impacts," said Larry Hincker, the recently retired university spokesman and head of the office. "It really helps contextualize subsets of the university's economic impact. I suspect that the study results are more useful to the community than to us. I see it as a public service."
Sarah Lyon-Hill, an economic development specialist at Tech and one of the study's authors, said her team of researchers spent the entirety of the 2014 football season working on the study, gathering responses through a combination of "in-person surveys during tailgates, phone calls with businesses and a lot of online surveys with both ticket holders as well as businesses." In all, the study examined football's impact on seven counties surrounding VT — Botetourt, Craig, Franklin, Giles, Montgomery, Pulaski and Roanoke — and the cities of Radford, Roanoke and Salem.
Lyon-Hill notes that the sizable $69 million figure represents $47 million in direct spending by both the football program and fans and an additional $22 million in "induced spending," a figure that reflects how industries end up generating more money with the added income football generates.
The study also found that Tech's total revenue boost from football stands at about $41 million, with $30 million of that total coming from outside the area.
Additionally, the researchers note that taxes levied on football-related transactions, like meals and lodging, ended up bringing in roughly $1 million for local governments and the state.
While Lyon-Hill notes that the study's results provided plenty of surprises, one area that didn't raise many eyebrows was the series of overwhelmingly positive responses the team received from people in the food and beverage and lodging sectors.
Indeed, large majorities of the businesses in those industries told Lyon-Hill and her colleagues that they saw substantial revenue increases during football weekends. The report concludes that the median revenue boost for restaurants and bars patronized by football fans ranges from 15 to 19 percent, while 23 of the 42 hotels surveyed reported revenue bumps of 30 percent or more.
That news likely isn't surprising to anyone who's ever tried to book a hotel room a few days before game day or stopped by a Blacksburg bar on a Saturday night. Yet the numbers can only tell part of the story.
"Football season takes on a life of its own," said Blacksburg Mayor Ron Rordam. "The infectious attitude around here that it adds is so positive that it's a lot of fun just to be part of a community like that on a pretty fall day."
"The Ripple Effect of Football" on Businesses
Stephanie Rogol has the good fortune of owning one of the prime destinations for pregame and postgame revelers in downtown Blacksburg: Sharkey's Wing and Rib Joint on North Main Street.
That means that she has no trouble believing the revenue bumps catalogued in the study. In fact, she believes that Sharkey's revenue jumps by a full 100 percent when the Hokies are in town compared to an average weekend.
But she also feels that football brings so much more than dollars and cents to her establishment.
"People are happy, so it really allows us to share in the community on a football weekend," Rogol said. "I think that's good for everything. I think that's good for the spiritual capital of your business, it's good for your employees' morale."
"Just looking at the fans who love their team, who are good fans, not bad fans...it's the Hokies' spirit, it's the 'Hokies Respect,' it's the values that Virginia Tech embraces as an organization and the students too that help me have a better business. It's the ripple effect of football."
She admits that football weekends aren't without their challenges, particularly when it comes to staffing. On a normal Saturday, she estimates that the bar needs 22 employees to keep things running, but that number tends to creep up to 28 on a game day.
Even still, she doubts that her payroll expenses rarely jump more than 10 percent with that change, and a simple question of space keeps her from even having the room to add more workers even if she wanted to.
"Pretty much the games are going to (have us) at capacity, you couldn't fit any more staff anyway, so it doesn't matter," Rogol said. "Instead of five bartenders on, we'll have six bartenders on, because you can't have more bartenders. They're just going to be working harder and faster because you only have so much room behind the bar."
She simply depends more on her staff to simply work harder, a challenge that she believes they always meet.
"They would not be happy campers if our guests weren't so good during football," Rogol said. "As much as it's stressful, they're all happy at the end of the weekends because of the fans."
Darlene McGinnis, managing owner of the Main Street Inn, says her experience has been similar when it comes to balancing the boom in business with the increased staffing pressure.
In fact, she says the staff's biggest challenge comes when the hotel needs to start accepting reservations for a new football season.
"We fill for the entire football season in 45 minutes each year," McGinnis said. "We end up selling out most weekends, but football weekends are guaranteed sell-out dates."
Unsurprisingly, that crush of reservations brings with it a windfall for the inn — McGinnis notes that the hotel ups its rates by 50 percent for football weekends, and requires that guests book a minimum of two nights.
Lisa Bleakley, director of tourism for the Montgomery County Tourism Development Council, adds that she hears plenty from retailers about the positive effects of football on their businesses.
"We can't forget about those grocers that do fairly significant business as well for tailgating supplies, party incidentals," Bleakley said. "There's a lot of spin off event activity built around those football games."
Lyon-Hill's study does indeed account for plenty of spending in that area, with an estimated $2.4 million spent on groceries alone and another $2.6 million at other retail establishments.
However, a much smaller number of retailers report seeing revenue increases on football weekends, with 15 of the 26 surveyed reporting gains. That's not to discount the positive effects the sport can have on merchants in the area, merely to point out that other businesses see more of an impact, the researchers write.
"The football weekends, the downtown merchants and at First and Main and on University City Boulevard, they count on that business," said John Bush, a Blacksburg town councilor.
The experiences of people like Rita Ferguson when it comes to the real estate market was the rare factor surrounding football to raise eyebrows among Tech's researchers.
Lyon-Hill and her colleagues estimate that fans who live outside the region own as many as 4,700 properties in the area.
"It's been over the last five to 10 years, it wasn't overnight that people started buying them, but we've noticed more and more people doing it," said Susan Kaiser, Blacksburg's director of finance.
Amy Hudson, a local realtor and owner of a RE/MAX franchise, says "less than 10 percent" of her sales are to people looking to keep a "Hokie pad" in the area, but that the purchases are still significant.
"They want to come and support the team and be here," Hudson said. "These Hokie houses aren't rented, they come and buy. They tend to be people in their 40s and 50s. and a lot of them have kids in school, because you have the multigenerational Hokies. Mom and dad went here, they met here, they got married here, now 20 years later their kid's 18 and he's coming to Virginia Tech and they buy a house because the kid's younger sister is going to come to Virginia Tech too."
Hudson also notes that most of those sales come in cash, a very welcome factor for simplicity's sake. Even better, she says the process can generate repeat customers, like the Fergusons.
"Over and over again, they will buy a small place, like a condo or small home that they'll use for their getaway weekends," Hudson said. "Then when they do retire, they come here and build or buy a much larger home that would accommodate the grandkids, all the family coming to stay."
Ferguson adds that she has no trouble believing that her family isn't the only one to follow that path, given the makeup of her new neighbors in Radford.
"A good number of the people already established on the street are Tech grads, it's like a little retirement community in itself," Ferguson said. "The surrounding area is kind of like stepping back in time. It's good old fashioned manners and neighbors help neighbors, just a really happy and safe place."
Hudson says that's just the sort of sentiment she hears from her clients all the time.
"They never want to leave Blacksburg," Hudson said. "They were here in college and loved it so much, they keep a pinky toe in Blacksburg until they're ready to come all the way back."
"It's Not Great For Everybody"
For the immense good that many business owners report experiencing thanks to football, Newton's third law still applies.
As fans flock to the bars or eye football condos, their attention is drawn away from other businesses that are less football focused.
"Football's not bad for the community, it's great for most of the businesses in town," said Susan Mattingly, executive director of the Lyric Theatre. "But it's not great for everybody and we have to acknowledge that."
While Mattingly certainly can't deny the crowds that football weekends bring to town, she says they're typically "not in a moviegoing frame of mind," especially given the Lyric's more unique film offerings. But the massive crowds usurping downtown parking also tend to scare away the theater's regular clientele.
"Football weekends are extremely slow for us, typically," Mattingly said. "There's a segment of the population that stays away from downtown on those football event weekends."
The results of Lyon-Hill's study mirror Mattingly's experiences. The researchers found that football visitors spend just an estimated $254,000 per year on arts, music and other entertainment, and each one of the five artistically inclined businesses they surveyed reported seeing revenue decreases on football weekends, with losses ranging from five to 30 percent.
While other businesses may eventually recover that lost revenue, as some locals decide to return once the crowds subside, Mattingly said the nature of the theater business means that isn't a likely outcome for the Lyric.
"I think some of them do come back, but some people will go see a movie on a Friday or Saturday night and if it's a football weekend, they're gone, they're not going to come back on a Tuesday night," Mattingly said.
She added that she's tried to get creative and schedule live events that might "appeal to the football crowds" on the Friday nights before the games in an attempt to mitigate the sport's impact, with little success.
"The people interested in going to football games are not keyed in, so we've given up on that," Mattingly said. "We just try to pull back from big events that would cost us a lot of money and be high risk on football weekends. We just get through the weekend and then it's back to business as usual. It's only eight weekends a year, at most."
It's a problem that the town's mayor admits is a concerning one, and one that has not gone unnoticed among Blacksburg's leadership.
"It's promoting and advertising the galleries and what they have to offer, some of the boutique shops, and it's part of an ongoing challenge and I think we've made great headway in it," Rordam said. "But we can't lose sight of that need, when you come to Blacksburg, if we want you to buy orange and maroon shirts and all the wonderful Hokie gear, we also want you to visit these other shops and realize what options are there."
The whirlwind of activity generated by a Tech football game can have negative impacts beyond just chasing away some patrons of the arts.
Between early-morning tailgating and the late-night revelry in downtown Blacksburg, it shouldn't come as a shock to anyone that football brings with it its fair share of people who enjoy a few adult beverages. While fans may be ringing up hefty bar tabs, they're also creating costs for the community in more intangible ways.
"As somebody who lives next to the stadium, I've had people urinate in the yard, people defecate in my yard, we have all the usual problems with drunkenness and traffic," said Leslie Hager-Smith, a Blacksburg town councilor. "You could probably make the case that the benefits are largely privatized and the costs are largely borne by the community."
Undoubtedly, there are costs associated with the need to step up the area's police presence and keep the masses under control both at the games themselves and during the celebrations afterward.
Both the Blacksburg Police and Virginia Tech Police failed to respond to repeated requests for comment on the issue, but local officials still provide some level of insight on how football creates costs for the departments.
One main area of tension is the need for extra personnel during the games themselves.
"It puts a strain on the police department because they've got to provide more police officers for the actual stadium and traffic control and crowd control," Kaiser said. "Some of that is paid by the athletic association, and some of that is just normal police services that they have to do because there are larger numbers of people in town for those functions."
Kaiser notes performing those normal functions may more directly burden the town and university departments, but they also get plenty of help from other localities. Specifically, she says that the university, often through the athletic department or the Hokie Club, contracts with the surrounding counties and cities to hire off-duty law enforcement personnel for the games.
Capt. Hank Partin of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office says his deputies are among those hired for just such a purpose, and he oversees their work at the games (and will soon take the reins as the county's new sheriff).
Partin notes that his department has provided 30 to 40 deputies for each game for "the past couple seasons," and their duties include checking fans for contraband, responding to incidents in the stadium and directing traffic before and after the game.
As Kaiser noted, Partin says that the arrangement rarely puts any financial strain on his department, since the university covers the cost of their services.
"Each deputy is paid by the hour at an overtime compensation rate that has been set by Virginia Tech and agreed to by the county," Partin said.
The only impact that games have on Partin's office beyond the work of the deputies at the games is a few changes at the county jail. Partin notes that they usually need to send an extra two deputies over to the jail to "assist with the influx of arrestees during the football games."
The more direct effects are felt by the town and university police, as they're the ones tasked with responding to any incidents that crop up after the games conclude.
"I think that the university may not feel it in the same way that the town does because once the game is over, all the activity comes into the town and doesn't really stay on campus," Bush said. "There are people, not many, who are ambivalent about it, with the neighborhood stuff that goes on, some of the public drunkenness and urination and things like that happen in the neighborhoods. I'm not saying the town looks the other way, but realistically, they can't logistically do a lot about it. They try to curb some of the excesses that happen."
There's undoubtedly a challenge associated with allocating resources to curb those excesses, but Kaiser believes that isn't putting any sort of noticeable financial strain on the town's police.
"I think that just becomes normal operating procedure, it's not specifically designed in their budget," Kaiser said. "It's just a fact of life, it just becomes a normal part of their budget. It's not like they're saying they need 'x' more overtimes because they'll be dealing with this, it's built into the structure."
The results of the VT study bear that out. The authors write that both the town and university departments told them that they "increase their staff during game days, with Virginia Tech Athletics paying 50 to 100 percent of the cost." While the police told the researchers that postgame incidents tend to vary based on "game conditions such as the time of the game, opponent, whether Virginia Tech wins or not, and the weather," they're still never overwhelmed on game weekends.
"When it's a close game, it's a close win, I always say 'Good luck tonight,' because there's a lot of celebrating," Rordam said. "But I only really know of one or two experiences, and I've been mayor for nine years, where they've been particularly stressed."
Rordam believes that the biggest reason the two departments are able to keep things under control so effectively, and avoid any exorbitant expenses, is their high level of collaboration.
"Coordination is really outstanding," Rordam said. "Our two police departments work so well together on a daily basis and this is one example. It really is like one department working together."
"A Sense of Pride"
Yet for all the problems expressed by members of the community, all the worries about the public drunkenness and neglect of artistic businesses, there is no disagreement on one key point — Football is indelibly a part of Blacksburg, from its economy to its culture.
"There's such a sense of pride in the university and in the football program," said Bleakley, the county tourism director. "I go to games myself, and I see a good percentage of the community there."
Lyon-Hill's study draws the conclusion that, for whatever negative factors exist surrounding football, they're far outweighed by the positive.
"I thought we were going to get more negative feedback than we did. Really, businesses, pretty much everyone within the region, understands the importance of Virginia Tech football," Lyon-Hill said. "Of all the economic impact analyses that I've been a part of in this office, I think we had the most enthusiastic participation by all stakeholders involved. It was pretty amazing, everyone was eager to tell their story."
Rogol, Sharkey's owner, is among those that are especially ready and willing to tout the sport's benefits, and she has a more unique perspective than most. She's been living and working in the area since 1992, back when football was not nearly the behemoth it is today. Since then, she's watched as the sport has exploded in popularity and success, and the town with it.
"It's just a fantastic town, it's what makes all of our businesses better," Rogol said. "Part of what makes that town so great is we have the Virginia Tech Hokies."
Without Beamer, there's little chance the football program would've reached the cusp of a national championship or joined the ACC. If those things don't happen, it wouldn't just be the team that looked different: It would be the whole region.
"We're bombarded every day with the world in our hand now," Bleakley said. "To be able to have something like a Virginia Tech program, where if you're talking to someone and you're trying to get on their radar and place where you are and what you're all about, that's something that immediately creates that recognition that allows for a broader and more in-depth conversation."
At the absolute least, without Beamer's football program, it's highly likely the area would be short at least one retiree.
"Football is the initial mover, but it's the total package of being in Blacksburg," Ferguson said.
"A good place to retire, I think."