In the scattered towns of central Pennsylvania, Penn State football is as much an industry as a devotion, fueled by the hundreds of thousands of fans who converge here on fall weekends and spend on hotels, meals, drinks and a mind-boggling array of Nittany Lions memorabilia. But in the wake of a child molestation scandal and resulting sanctions that will weaken the football program for years, people who do business here fear a thinning of those cheering, tailgating hordes, which could spell economic trouble for the region.
“We really have nothing to compare this to, so nobody can make any predictions,” said Maggie Biddle, the general manager of the stately Atherton Hotel, a block from the campus. “Except we know it’s probably going to hurt all of us.”
The canaries in this peculiar coal mine are the shops strung along College Avenue, their windows facing the campus and their shelves and racks lined with Penn State T-shirts, key chains, mugs, sweat pants, tote bags, umbrellas, posters and even jewelry.
“Those seven or eight home game weekends are a majority of our business for the whole year,” said Caroline Gummo, the advertising manager at one store, the Family Clothesline. “Business has definitely been affected already by everything that’s happened, and we don’t know how it’s going to play out for the next few years.”
Nowhere else in the country is there a school anywhere near as big (45,000 students on the main campus), in a town as small (42,000 people reside here) in a place as far from population centers (Pittsburgh is more than 100 miles away, Philadelphia almost 200). More than 100,000 people attend each Penn State home game, and the typical out-of-town visitor who has a ticket is accompanied by one or two who do not, as evidenced by the tailgate parties and bars that remain busy during games.
A 2009 study commissioned by Penn State estimated that people arriving from out of state for games or other football-related events spend $34 million a year — and they are a minority of the visiting fans, most of whom come from other parts of Pennsylvania. In all, the study said, the football program supports more than 2,000 local jobs.
Economists argue that on balance, sports make a poor economic engine, creating mostly low-wage jobs and shifting spending from one place to another. But local merchants say that whether or not this region’s obsession with football is healthy, their livelihoods are at least partly built on it.
“If there’s a decline in all of that, that’s a huge problem for us, and for everyone around here,” said Kit Henshaw, who, with her husband, Harrison Schailey, owns Harrison’s Wine Grill and Catering. “How many people who organize events or go to events are going to hear everything that’s gone on and say, ‘We’re not going there’?”
So far, the Atherton Hotel’s bookings for football weekends have not declined, said Ms. Biddle, the general manager. But many of those reservations were made months ago, and she, like other businesspeople in town, said that the full economic fallout might not become clear for another year or two.
What that will do to those football season crowds is less clear. Season ticket sales are running only slightly behind last year’s, but it is too early to gauge single-game sales.
For now, the shops are trying to tap into a mood of nervous defiance among fans, with T-shirts and posters that refer obliquely to the scandal but reassert allegiance to Penn State football. Big sellers at the Family Clothesline include a shirt bearing Mr. Paterno’s profile that says, “We Are … Because He Was,” a takeoff on the traditional chant “We Are … Penn State.”
Local merchants say they are frustrated with a story that will not go away. “We’re all angry,” Ms. Gummo said, “that we have to pay the consequences of the actions of just a few men.”