Whether it's a missed field goal, a fumbled handoff or an untimely penalty, miscues on the gridiron are hard to swallow for the University of Tennessee's players, coaches and fans. But when the Vols start piling up losses, the impact can be felt a long way from the 50-yard line.
With this year's football team so far mired in more losses than wins, the profit margins of some local merchants are getting sacked. From the hotels that house out-of-town fans and the Friday-night watering holes to the retailers with orange and white on the shelves, frustration in Big Orange Country is showing up at the cash register.
Bo Connor, chief operating officer at Connor Concepts, said one of his company's restaurants had two large parties that had booked Friday-night reservations before this weekend's game with Mississippi State but canceled them "pretty much because the Vols are not doing well." Knoxville-headquartered Connor Concepts' roster of restaurants includes Connor's, The Chop House and Regas.
"I've been around for a long time (and) went to UT," Connor said, "but there's certainly an impact in the community with people going out to restaurants in good years versus bad."
Connor said the impact from this year's football skid has been magnified by a struggling economy, which has affected consumer spending decisions across the country. On Wednesday, for example, the U.S. Commerce Department announced that September's retail sales estimates were 1.2 percent below August figures, a number that - according to The Associated Press - was almost double the 0.7 percent drop analysts expected.
"It's kind of a two-edged sword that's hit here at the same time," said Jed Dance, vice president at Bacon & Co., a wholesaler of UT merchandise.
Dance said his company's sales are down a little bit but said this has been a unique year since his company has offered new products like a line of Vol-themed paisley handbags that have been "extremely successful."
"It's a ladies-type item and it's a fashion item," he said, "so … as we get into more fashion stuff, yes wins and losses affect it, but not as drastically."
For local hoteliers, a sub-par football team can have an impact at the concierge desk and at the bar. Scott Bullock, general manager of the Knoxville Hilton, estimated that his hotel had reduced rates for this weekend by $50 across the board and that he still had a half-dozen rooms available for the Alabama game.
"And I will fill those within two weeks' time," he said, "but people are leery, I think. They're waiting to see what's going to happen next."
And when their team is vanquished, some fans apparently aren't eager to linger over a meal. Ken Knight, general manager of the Crowne Plaza, said that hotel's restaurant and lounge business is down around 15 percent compared to similar weekends last year.
"Breakfast on a Sunday morning after a loss is slower than on a Sunday morning after a win," he said.
And why is that?
"Well, I think the Tennessee fans are a little bit discouraged," Knight said. "And so rather than get up and have breakfast and talk about the game, they just get up and go home."
Revenues are even down at Neyland Stadium, where concession revenue added up to $1,448,000 through the first three home games of 2008, compared to $1,567,000 in 2007. In an e-mail, UT Athletics Department spokeswoman Tiffany Carpenter said concession sales are linked to kickoff times, with the highest sales during games that kick off at 12:30. Unlike this year's home opener against Alabama-Birmingham, none of the first three games in 2007 kicked off at 12:30.
Not all the news is bad, though. According to the Athletics Department, university licensing royalties in the July-September quarter already have surpassed the same period last year - $1.3 million in 2008 compared to $1.04 million in 2007 - even though the September figures for 2008 haven't yet been tallied.
As an example, royalties from a firm called North Pole LLC - which produces nonapparel gameday products like tailgate gear that is available at Walmart - checked in at nearly $123,000 this year, compared to only $3,275 last year.
And even when the pigskin is bouncing the wrong way, fans of UT's resurgent men's hoops team may be feeling optimistic. Shay Riggs, manager of UT-themed retail store Tennessee Traditions on campus, said football jerseys haven't been selling very well compared to last year but that a lot of customers have asked for autographable basketballs, perhaps in anticipation of men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl's scheduled in-store appearance during Homecoming weekend on Nov. 8.
Basketball season is under way, with the men beginning practice on Friday and fan enthusiasm spilling into the aisles of retailers selling that gear. Lady Vols merchandise, given the women's basketball team's phenomenal success, also has been a big seller.
When it comes to economic impact, though, it's hard for basketball to match the clout of a football team, which can draw more than 100,000 fans to Neyland Stadium.
Bullock of the Hilton said a lot of the basketball attendance is local.
"So basketball's exciting, it's fun," he said. "But it doesn't have the financial impact into the city that football does."
Business writer Josh Flory may be reached at 865-342-6994.