Liberty University’s transition to college football’s top level, the Football Bowl Subdivision, is expected to have a significant economic impact on Lynchburg and the surrounding region, according to Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance CEO and chief economic development officer Megan Lucas.
“Think of the fans of all those other teams that are going to come this way,” Lucas said, adding the business alliance is developing an economic impact analysis of Liberty’s transition. “So certainly, it will have a very favorable economic impact.”
Liberty will be the sixth program since 2014 to move to the FBS from the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision. Four programs joined the FBS in 2014 — Old Dominion, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State; Charlotte made the transition in 2015; and Coastal Carolina will become a full FBS member next season.
“We are really excited in Economic Development & Tourism about the move and feel confident the City and region will see an increase in attendance for games,” Marjette Upshur wrote in an email to The News & Advance. Upshur is the director of the City of Lynchburg’s Economic Development & Tourism department. “With increased attendance comes increased spending.”
Appalachian State, which is located in Boone, North Carolina, joined the Sun Belt after winning three consecutive FCS national championships between 2005 and 2007.
Wright Tilley, the executive director of the Watauaga County Tourism Development Authority, said Boone and Watauaga County saw a 15 percent to 31 percent increase in occupancy tax collections for 2016, which included the University of Miami (Florida) playing there before a national television audience.
“The movement into the Sun Belt with Appalachian State has definitely impacted our community economically,” John Ward, the town manager of Boone, said.
Ward added Boone’s tourism appeal “matched up with an opportunity to come in and see a football game definitely increases the length of time people are staying in our area.”
Coastal Carolina, located in Conway, South Carolina and Liberty’s former rival in the Big South Conference, is playing a full Sun Belt Conference schedule this season and will be bowl eligible next season.
The Chanticleers benefit from playing less than a half hour from Myrtle Beach.
“It’s going to be a wait and see kind of thing really,” said Foster Hughes, Conway’s Parks, Recreation and Tourism director. “The businesses that are around the university are excited and amped up.”
Brad Dean, the president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said there has been discussion of a possible increase in air services to Myrtle Beach to accommodate the fans traveling in for football games.
Dean added the promotional value through television coverage will impact the region, which has been the case for Georgia Southern, located in Statesboro, Georgia.
Benjamin McKay, the research specialist for the Bureau of Business Research and Economic Development at Georgia Southern, said the program has seen an “increase in profile” through added games on national television and has “translated to a wider exposure across different platforms.”
Liberty will begin play at the FBS level in 2018 as an independent and be bowl eligible in 2019.
Teams such as Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, Syracuse University, Army and Brigham Young University are scheduled to play at Williams Stadium between the 2018 and 2030 seasons. Fans of those well-known programs typically travel to follow their teams.
“The fact that we’re going to be independent is going to make the impact a whole lot greater,” Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. said.
“Folks don’t just come in for a game. They’re not going to pull in on Saturday morning, enjoy a game Saturday and then leave,” Lucas said. “Teams travel and their fans travel with them. They will take advantage of our historical significance — Liberty itself as tourist attraction, Poplar Forest, the D-Day Memorial.
“Those communities, any community, that’s in a large football division sees a significant impact not just in the service sector but indeed in the tourism, hotel, bed and breakfast, all of that.”