BATON ROUGE, La. – Brandon Landry’s Walk-On’s Bistreaux and Bar made $125,000 in sales on the day of LSU’s last home game against Missouri. Add Friday and Sunday revenue and it was nearly a $200,000 weekend for the popular eatery, which as Landry says is just a 7-iron shot away from Tiger Stadium.
So don’t dare to tell Landry -- much less his employees who budget around expected earnings from LSU’s seven home football crowds -- that the solution to the LSU-Florida commotion is for LSU to simply cancel its Nov. 19 game against South Alabama.
“Some of our staff members, they really depend on game days toward the end of the year,” Landry said. “They’ve been busting their tail during some of the dry months of the summer waiting on football season, and it’s only six or eight days of those big football games. And when you kill one, that’s a big portion of what they’ve been depending on.”
Even in a normal year, canceling a scheduled game would be a blow to local businesses. But after one of the worst floods in U.S. history struck the Baton Rouge area in August, taking a home game away from the city would be exponentially more harmful.
However, that is one of the suggestions for how to fix the LSU-Florida debacle after Hurricane Matthew’s approach forced SEC commissioner Greg Sankey to postpone last Saturday’s game. Canceling the South Alabama game and instead playing Florida that day in Gainesville, Florida, is an unpopular idea among LSU fans for several reasons, but the volume of the protests is several decibel levels higher among those involved in the most affected businesses.
“Half my staff don’t have homes right now,” said Ruffin Rodrigue, owner of Ruffino’s RestaurantE. “They were flooded. They’re living with relatives. And they need this income to survive, to send their kids to school.”
Assessing the area’s full economic hit from the floods remains difficult, but Baton Rouge Area Chamber president and CEO Adam Knapp offered some statistics:
A total of 150,000 individuals across 22 parishes -- most of whom live in three parishes in the Baton Rouge area -- registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency as having been affected by the floods.
At least 55,000 homeowners and 15,000 renters suffered major or severe damage, which means at least a foot of water crept into their homes.
Approximately 14,000 businesses were impacted, at least 6,000 of which dealt with some level of flooding.
The area stands to lose between 1,000 and 5,000 jobs, “depending on how much small business recovery occurs and how long that recovery takes,” Knapp said.
That economic fragility explains why arguments against losing a home game have been especially vehement from Baton Rouge since that idea was first proffered.
“That’s kind of the teeter-totter we all live in right now,” said Stephen Waguespack, president and CEO of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. “The home game may sound trivial to some folks around the country, but for this part of the country, considering what we’ve been through, it’s a critical component to recovery for some of these businesses and homeowners.”
LSU’s share of the responsibility for Baton Rouge’s economy is a complicated conversation. Does the university owe it to the city to play as many home games as possible? Critics of LSU athletic director Joe Alleva’s stance against moving the Nov. 19 game could point to the Tigers’ having opened five of the last seven football seasons with a neutral-site game as evidence that LSU doesn’t always put its community first.
But in this situation, in this year, any conversation about moving a scheduled home game becomes more personal than even the norm within LSU’s rabid fan base.
“The desire to have somebody to root for while you’re replacing the sheetrock on your flooded property or rebuilding your small business, it’s a shot of confidence in the arm and perhaps a pleasant distraction to be excited about that makes you believe and have hope,” Knapp said. “That’s not too small a thing to look forward to.”
However, any psychological boost from an LSU victory is secondary to the dollars and cents in play. Knapp said out-of-town visitors have a direct-spending impact of nearly $50 million over the course of a seven-game football home schedule, “so missing one of those games, you’re looking at potentially between $7 [million] to $10 million of impact.”
Those dollars are especially vital to local retail and hospitality businesses, Knapp said, but he added that LSU football can be a statewide economic driver during successful seasons. He believes that is especially the case after Ed Orgeron’s debut as interim coach renewed enthusiasm among the Tigers’ fan base.
Baton Rouge will need all the optimism it can muster as disaster recovery continues and businesses try to get back on their feet. Regardless of where that ranks on Alleva’s priority list in this dispute with the SEC and Florida, it’s the most important part of the discussion for those who desperately need home crowds to frequent their businesses on Nov. 19.
“You’ve got a number of small businesses that were put out of business by the flood, a lot of them don’t have flood insurance – they weren’t in a flood zone – and so they’re literally left scrambling to keep their folks employed, to keep their mortgage from going upside down,” Waguespack said. “These types of home weekends literally are make-or-break for a lot of these folks. Even in a good economic environment, it’s tough to lose this type of weekend. In the type of environment we’re facing, it’s a non-starter to lose it.”