Many local business owners and community leaders agree: When the Pokes are winning, Laramie wins, too.
Today, Laramie prepares to host the Mountain West Conference Championship game at War Memorial Stadium, where the University of Wyoming Cowboys football team is scheduled to take on the San Diego State Aztecs. The Cowboys’ 2016 football season stands in stark contrast to the 2015 season where the Pokes record was a dismal 2-10. This year, lead by coach Craig Bohl, the Cowboys won eight games, including all six home games. UW football hasn’t competed in a conference championship game since 1996.
At the Brown & Gold Outlet, a retailer on Grand Avenue featuring Wyoming Cowboys and Cowgirls merchandise, Friday was a busy day. In more than 20 years of being in business in Laramie, owner Casey Campbell said 2016 will likely be one of the best — if not the best — football seasons in his store’s history. He said his store relies heavily on sales during football season.
“Right now, it looks like we probably have seven or eight people standing at the rack with all the championship gear,” Campbell said at the store Friday afternoon. “The championship gear is selling really well.”
Fred Ockers is the executive director of the Albany County Tourism Board. When it comes to having an influx of people that come to Laramie and spend money, Ockers said there’s no boost bigger than a home football game.
“There’s nothing that compares to potentially doubling the size of our community,” he said.
Whether its hotels, restaurants or retailers, the local economy thrives when sporting events draw people to Laramie, said JJ Harris, president of the Laramie Chamber Business Alliance.
“I don’t care if it’s an elementary school sports program, they all bring people in, and that’s an economic driver,” he said.
Sitting just to the east of War Memorial Stadium is the Hilton Garden Inn, which is filled to the brim, said Mark Pearce, director of sales and marketing. Though he’s not normally someone who watches football or goes to games, Pearce said the excitement around town is obvious when he goes to local businesses.
“Overall, I think the town is going to benefit from this,” he said.
When Cowboys football struggles, Pearce said his business doesn’t do as well. But this year, he said the Hilton filled its rooms for all six home games, as well as for today’s game.
“I could have probably sold out three times over for this game,” he said. “It’s fantastic. If we could have this kind of season every year, it’d be great.”
Far from War Memorial Stadium, downtown’s Buckhorn Bar is preparing for its Breakfast Club, a game day tradition. Assistant Manager Buck Ward is expecting a busy weekend — something he said they can attribute to hosting the championship game.
“It means a lot, especially for something we didn’t really expect to happen,” Ward said. “I think all the businesses are going to do pretty well, especially in the restaurant and service industry.”
For the Holiday Inn, having the championship game in Laramie feels like an early Christmas gift, Manager Kristin Lewis said.
“It’s like having an extra home game weekend, but twice as big, more excitement and larger crowds,” she said. “It’s very exciting for both the staff and guests.”
Even a small store such as Brown & Gold Outlet has felt the hurt from Wyoming’s most recent economic bust, Campbell said. But people are coming from all around the region and spending money, which he said is giving the store a leg up it needs.
“I think it’s great timing,” Campbell said. “It brings the state together. When people don’t have as much disposable income, they don’t buy as much gear. Now, it seems like everyone that’s coming in wants to get into the Wyoming gear again. We’re selling a lot of Cowboys stuff now.”
Businesses surely appreciate a seventh home game but that’s not all to consider with today’s game, said Billy Sparks, senior associate Athletics director of business operations at UW. The game is being broadcast on ESPN, giving UW unprecedented exposure nationally and internationally. With most college football championship games being played today at neutral sites, having a championship game in a city with the local team playing is huge, Sparks said.
“This has never happened for us since we’ve been in the Mountain West Conference — hosting this event is very, very unique,” he said. “I hope folks around the state and the region — Wyoming fans — take advantage of that opportunity.”
In three seasons with the Cowboys, Bohl turned the team into one that can win games — and even defeat high-ranking teams such as Boise State. And Sparks said he and his colleagues at the university are optimistic the trend of championship competing athletic programs will continue. If it does, Sparks said the exposure and positive atmosphere could help all departments and units at UW, the city of Laramie, Albany County and the state.
That is made possible in no small part by leaders around the state committed to supporting athletics, whether administration at UW, the State Legislature or Gov. Matt Mead, Sparks said.
“(Athletic Director) Tom Burman and Coach Bohl fought long and hard for the matching gift program from the State Legislature, and it is those monies that have been able to flow into the plan we have,” Sparks said. “There were a lot of questions about whether the monies invested were good investments. We believe that now we’re able to show tangible results.”
Mead says in an email he’s proud of what the program has accomplished and looks forward to “seeing War Memorial Stadium full of brown and gold.”
“The Cowboy football team has fought hard all season for the opportunity to host the conference championship game,” he says. “This is great for UW, Laramie, the state and the team. A nationally televised game showcases our university, reaches potential students and builds alumni support.”
As a UW alumnus and former football player himself, Gary Crum, president of Western States Bank, said the growth he sees at the bank isn’t the only thing he enjoys about the success of UW football. But the economic boost combined with the jubilation that comes with a winning UW team work in tandem, Crum said.
“The economic development Wyoming football creates and that good feeling that’s in town and around the state makes people want to do more business,” he said. “Our bank — frankly, just a small part of the community — sees remarkable growth on weekends when Wyoming plays a football game, and especially when it wins a football game.”
With UW struggling through a $41 million reduction in state block grant funding, Crum said athletics’ success should be felt all across campus.
“Whether it’s the English department, engineering, business or education — whatever you want to say — they’re all going to benefit because we’ve had a good football program,” he said. “I think it brings positive momentum. I was on campus a few minutes ago and I heard a student say, ‘Look how crowded the bookstore is today.’ That’s economic development and that’s income that offsets the deficits. When the water rises, all the ships on the sea will rise with it.”
Sparks said ticket sales surged early and slowed later in the week. Burman sent out a tweet Friday morning indicating there were 3,800 tickets left for today’s game. Sparks said there was just less than $500,000 in ticket sales by deadline Friday.
To reap the benefits of being on a national stage, Sparks said he is hoping Wyoming fans attend and show their UW pride.
“This is a major production that I hope everyone gets excited about,” he said. “Since we’re going to be on national — in fact, international — television, I hope everyone shows up and shows the country what kind of dedicated fans we have in Laramie.”