nThe James F Martin Inn is located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in a wooded area overlooking an artificial lake on the edge of the Clemson University campus before they tearfully say goodbye to their newbies one last time. Coupled with its pastoral pathways, on-site restaurants, and adjacent golf course with bunkers modeled on the university’s soccer team’s tiger paw logo, the inn offers another luxury that is likely to be of interest to imaginative soccer fans: a 20-minute hike to the memorial Stage.

They call the stadium Death Valley, a name that nods at the devastating force of 81,500 Clemson fans. Its influence is even more evident in this upstate city, with a permanent population of just over 16,000, which goes from being the 33rd largest city in South Carolina during the summer recess to being one of the most populous in the state on Football Saturdays.

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The tens of thousands who cannot get a seat in Death Valley are happy to drop by by land or sea. Much of the remaining overflow is choking on College Avenue, where supporters clad in orange and purple pack like cotton swabs in downtown bars and shops. But when Covid combed through last year and stole the life of that party, the aftermath hurt far worse than any loss to South Carolina or Alabama. “Everything fell apart somehow,” says Sharon Franks, the inn’s long-time manager.

Sharon Franks, General Manager of the James F Martin Inn: “Everything kind of fell apart during Covid”. Photo: Steve Boyle

Football isn’t just the tide that is driving Clemson’s $ 130 million sports division; it is the elixir of life for this community. The local Chamber of Commerce estimates that a single soccer game would cause economic damage to at least 2 million Affiliates generate up to 50% of their annual sales during the Tigers’ seven home games each year. “We are very blessed,” said Clemson’s Mayor Robert Halfacre.

College sports series

In this city-and-dress symbiosis, Clemson’s head coach Dabo Swinney is more than the $ 8 million man who pokes fun at the idea of ​​student-athletes getting a piece of the pie. (“You’re losing me,” he said in a 2015 interview, raw meat for an old-fashioned John Oliver who’s twisted.) Julie Ibrahim, owner of a clothing store called The Tiger Sports Shop, calls Clemson Football “our stock.” market ”and has an awe for Swinney that is reminiscent of Wall Street’s awe for Warren Buffett. “If you want to say something bad about Dabo,” she says of the coach who has won two national titles in the last five seasons, “you can forget about it in front of me. Actually he’s my hero. “

The more Clemson thrives under Swinney, the more other entrepreneurs see green. “A lot of people come here for a football weekend and say, ‘Wow, this town could use another bar, restaurant or clothing store’ and open a store,” says Cameron Farish, co-owner of the Tiger Town Tavern, a cozy downtown bar. which turns into a mosh pit on match days. “And if the business doesn’t make it, it’s because there is no soccer game. What they don’t know is that you make sauce seven weekend days a year, but you have to bake a cookie for 360 °. “

C.ovid didn’t just steal the biscuit; it started a blazing fire in the kitchen. It forced Clemson to close in mid-March and shrouded its sports scene in uncertainty. The Atlantic Coast Conference, which Clemson is attending, has canceled spring sports, a not insignificant source of income for the Clemson community, and kept the excitement over their fall football plans throughout the summer.

To address an estimated $ 25 million pandemic-related shortage, the Clemson sports division discontinued its men’s track and field and cross-country teams. Clemson’s soccer coaches were forced to cut salaries; USA Today found that the amount withdrawn from Swinney, a relatively modest $ 698,500, nonetheless exceeded the annual salaries of at least 24 head coaches for the Football Bowl subdivision.

The ACC eventually decided to push the 2020 football season forward, but Death Valley had a 19,000 spectator limit and the team only played six home games on a shortened schedule.

Katie Green, Tiger Properties Office Manager, stands near her office on College Avenue in Clemson. Photo: Steve Boyle

In addition, the virus itself was reckoned with – which added more clutter to the football schedule as the ACC adjusted its Covid logs in real time. Not only did more than 20 players test positive for Covid during the preseason, but the Tigers eventually lost star quarterback Trevor Lawrence to the virus for two games.

Overall, the city of Clemson saw a $ 1.8 million drop in sales between September 2019 and September 2020 due to the pandemic. “If you only talk about lodging and lodging taxes, the average loss was 18.5%,” says Halfacre. Meanwhile, hotel bookings dried up and bars and shops battled to keep people pouring through their doors under strict masking and social distancing guidelines. On match days, Clemson transformed from the biggest party in the state into a veritable snooze festival. “We were closed for four weeks during the pandemic while the university tried to find out everything,” says Franks, the landlord.

Fortunately for the inn, the bond with the university turned out to be a saving grace. Once the athletics were back up, Clemson used the inn to house visiting teams and recruits in the fall – an arrangement that kept Franks’ people working. “The other hotels had a little more trouble because they didn’t have that option.”

The few Clemson businesses that have had no issues have mostly been tied to the city’s nature, on hiking trails or rented boats where social distancing is more a given. Off-campus apartment rentals also flourished during the pandemic. “Our students have been trying to get out of our leases,” says Katie Green of Tiger Properties. “Unfortunately, due to our rental agreement, there is no clause to terminate the rental agreement.” In fact, the university has frozen tuition fees for the second year in a row.

It is enough to make you wonder how differently Covid would have affected this community if there were an auto parts supplier or bottling plant in town, for example. Why it doesn’t exist is less a question of economics than geography.

The city of Clemson is less than eight landlocked square miles. It is bordered by the mountains, the lake and tens of thousands of hectares of protected forest. Clemson University covers 1,400 acres.

The city’s unique blend of dizzying popularity and land scarcity ensures that high property values ​​and property taxes are on a par – especially when compared to Greenville, Anderson, and other neighboring cities, which have more tax breaks and room for growth. Because of this, car dealerships, large stores, and other tentpole stores are on the outskirts, while smaller, catering businesses operate within the boundaries of the campus. These restrictions don’t just drive big industries out. They prevent entrepreneurial Clemson graduates from building their businesses around the university that could help diversify the local economy away from pure soccer, as graduates from Duke, North Carolina, and NC State have done in and around the Research Triangle to have. “Take a look around these cities,” says Farish, the bartender who also sits on the city’s economic development board. “There are think tanks, engineering firms, software startups and biomedical companies. And these places occupy the husbands and wives of professors, faculty, and staff. And they diversify the economies of these cities that were once dormitory communities. Clemson doesn’t have that. “

Cameron Farish, Tiger Town Tavern Partner:Cameron Farish, co-owner of Tiger Town Tavern: ‘You make gravy seven weekends a year, but you have to make a 360 cookie.’ Photo: Steve Boyle

When the tiger sport is in season, small business owners thrive and also keep students and townspeople employed. But when the sport fell away during the pandemic, local entrepreneurs had to get creative to survive. Ibrahim, the owner of the Tiger Sports Shop, was poised to take heavy losses last year as normal pedestrian traffic in and out of their stores slowed to a trickle during Covid. But with the help of manager Shawn Cartmill, she quickly turned to selling face masks with Clemson logos while expanding her online business and adding roadside and through-street service.

“I was thinking a lot before Covid struck, you know, what could bring football to a standstill,” says Ibrahim, who has been in business since 1974. “Would it be too many injuries or will you go on parole?” for any reason? This was by far the largest and most unusual crisis that we have experienced in our business. But we’re still strong and want to move at full speed until someone tells us otherwise. “

Last Saturday, Clemson Football returned to campus in full swing, with the home team bouncing back to a 49-3 game against the state of South Carolina after being tripped on neutral ground in Charlotte, Georgia a week earlier. Death Valley was full, the bars and shops were full, and College Avenue was rocking again (albeit with some social distancing). The party is officially back, but no one can say for sure how long. With Delta and other Covid variants in the air, a community is holding its collective breath. The last thing this city needs is another pandemic shutdown. If it looks like the people here are fighting for the tigers, like their lives depend on it, it’s because they are.