MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – We've long known that intercollegiate athletics plays a major role in local economies.
How big? That's a question West Virginia University director of athletics Shane Lyons set out to answer two years ago when he saw an economic impact study that West Virginia University once conducted to quantify its overall university operations.
Lyons wanted to know, specifically, what a college football or college basketball game played in Morgantown, West Virginia, meant to Monongalia County and the entire state of West Virginia.
"I would get a lot of questions about the impact of athletic events in Monongalia County and I never really had specific answers," Lyons said Wednesday morning.
"I could make a guess on what those numbers might look like, but I never knew for sure."
So he commissioned Tripp Umbach, a nationally acclaimed research company that has conducted more than 200 economic impact studies over the last 25 years, to do a comprehensive study of Mountaineer athletics during the course of the 2017-18 academic year and the results were revealed earlier today.
What the report uncovers is rather astonishing, although probably not all that surprising to anyone who takes a family of four to Milan Puskar Stadium to watch a college football game on Saturdays: Mountaineer athletics is extremely valuable to the state of West Virginia.
The economic impact alone to the state of West Virginia is at least $302.7 million per year.
Locally, the economic impact to Monongalia County is $78.8 million and the overall tax impact to the state of West Virginia is roughly $18.6 million.
Most significantly, of the $302 million WVU athletics is generating on a yearly basis, $246 million of that is coming from visitor and fan spending.
That means money from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware and anywhere else outside of West Virginia is coming into the state.
"Those are significant numbers," Carrie Kennedy, senior principal for market research at Tripp Umbach, said. "Those are dollars that come into the local economy that really create a big impact. The operations of athletics is impressive, but the real impact comes from the visitors' spending."
That's external dollars, not internal.
To give you an apples to oranges example of what $302 million means, that's roughly three times more than the city of Charleston's YEARLY budget.
Charleston, of course, is West Virginia's largest city.
There is nothing event-driven in West Virginia the comes close to what WVU athletics means economically to the state on a yearly basis - not Marshall athletics, not the State Fair, not The Greenbrier Classic, not the state high school basketball tournaments, the Super Six football championships in Wheeling … nothing.
And Mountaineer sports' impact spans far beyond Morgantown.
When someone drives from Marietta, Ohio, to Morgantown to watch a West Virginia football game on a Saturday afternoon and then stops in Fairmont to eat dinner on their way home, that's economic impact.
When a fan from Columbus, Ohio, breaks up the long drive to do some shopping at The Highlands near Wheeling, that's economic impact.
When someone from Virginia pulls off Interstate 79 in Flatwoods to get gas on the way to Morgantown, that's economic impact.
When fans fly into Clarksburg's Benedum Airport and stay in hotels anywhere from Flatwoods to Morgantown, that's economic impact.
When someone pulls out that big case of beer for the morning tailgate party before a football game, that's also economic impact.
"When people come from outside the county or state, it generates more of an impact than just people circulating their money within the community because they would do that whether the university was here or not," Kennedy explained.
Again, we're talking about a substantial amount of outside dollars coming into West Virginia – not internal money simply being recirculated, when, for instance, people drive down to Charleston to watch the state high school basketball tournament or a rock concert at the Civic Center or travel to Lewisburg to enjoy the State Fair.
When you really think about it, it's truly significant what West Virginia University Athletics means to the state's economy on a yearly basis.
Mountaineer football, of course, is the biggest economic driver, comprising $193.9 million of the $302 million generated each year. In lay terms, that averages out to approximately $8 million per home football game when Lyons does his football scheduling.
Therefore, when WVU has a six-game home schedule, as it does this year, that means about $48 million to the state economy. On those years when the Mountaineers are fortunate enough to schedule seven home football games, the number swells to $56 million.
That's a lot of happy restaurant, hotel and store owners in the area.
Considering the athletic department's significant financial role in the area economy, Lyons suggests it is vital for local and state leaders to continue to work together.
"This is not just athletics," he noted. "This is the community of Morgantown and Monongalia County when we put on athletic events. We're all in this together."
Along with this means maintaining the area transportation infrastructure to ensure that West Virginia University and Morgantown, West Virginia, remains accessible to fans.
After all, who wants to see a bunch of potholes keeping regional sports fans from spending the $246.1 million they do each year on WVU sports?
That's pretty big money from where most of us come.