‘The buzz is amazing’: KU football hype is energizing Lawrence, boosting business

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The Kansas Jayhawks football team is 5-0, ranked 19th in the Associated Press poll and angling for its first postseason bowl game appearance since 2008. And the team’s surprising success on the field is rippling through the community. 

From stadium ticket sellouts to packed bars, restaurants and parking lots, KU’s winning season is boosting the local economy in tangible ways. 

Just ask Willie Johnson, who has rented game-day parking spaces to KU football fans on his property in the 900 block of Mississippi Street for six years. In past seasons, Johnson offered parking for $10 per car and hoped to fill the dozens of spaces he has on three lots. This season he’s getting an average of $40 per space, and sometimes as much as $60. 

“With the sellout, people don’t even balk at $40-plus,” he says. “One guy was charging $50 for blocked-in, $75 for easy-out, and he was further from the stadium than me. So I know for a fact that I could get more.”

For those who can’t make it to David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium or are in town for the game, local restaurants, bars and liquor stores are reporting booming business on football Saturdays as well.

“I’ve seen what football can do to businesses around town, just because it brings so many extra people who need to eat or drink or get a hotel room or do whatever,” says James Shaffer, who owns R Bar and Patio at 610 Florida St. “For the most part, KU football was not doing anything to help business or help anything (for the past several years), but … now we have to open early and we have to be ready for these game days and have a bigger staff on — and yeah, it’s been a lot of fun.” 

Matt Easley, general manager of On the Rocks, a liquor store at 1818 Massachusetts St., says football-related business hasn’t been this good since KU last had a winning season, in 2008. In addition to selling more alcohol for tailgating purposes, Easley says he has seen a huge increase in orders from wholesale customers like downtown restaurants and campus-neighboring bars like The Hawk. 

“Everybody is benefiting from it,” he says.

Latchkey Deli’s sales have surged by as much as 80% on game days, according to Chetan Michie, the Massachusetts Street restaurant’s owner and chef, who said he’s had to extend Latchkey’s hours to handle the demand. In addition to experiencing a higher number of customers, Michie also has been able to secure a few catering contracts. 

“Everybody has been super happy, and there hasn’t been an unmanageable thing,” Mitchie says. “The thing that helped us out this past week was the block party,” which drew thousands of people to Massachusetts Street last Friday night.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Big Jay, Baby Jay and members of KU’s Spirit Squad hype up the crowd at the Rock Chalk Block Party on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022 on Massachusetts Street.

Some local restaurants have contracted with Centerplate, which runs stadium catering, to operate food stands at the stadium during the games. 

La Parrilla has a booth on the ground floor by section 11 and 12, selling a limited menu: tacos, loaded nachos, and rice bowls for $10 each. The booth did “nonstop business” this past Saturday, according to Subarna Bhattachan, owner of La Parrilla, and he hopes to repeat the experience at this week’s game.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to be part of KU Athletics and, obviously, a winning team,” Bhattachan says. “We work the KU basketball (games), and it’s always full, so it’s really fun to see the football stadium full. And you know, people are excited. … It was thrilling.” 

An obvious benefactor of KU football fever is downtown sporting goods and apparel store Jock’s Nitch, which has seen a sharp increase in customers buying Jayhawk football gear.

“We usually start pretty well with football each year regardless, but it … continues to grow each week,” says Ryan Owens, the store’s general manager. 

Licensed T-shirts and hoodies featuring quarterback Jalon Daniels and running back Devin Neal are big sellers, he said.

“I think it’s really cool that we’re able to do some name-image-likeness (items),” Owens says. “Everybody has been really excited to see that. … Sales continue to grow and hopefully it will keep rolling.”

The excitement around the Jayhawk team also has helped sales for establishments that don’t have any direct links to football or football culture. 

“We don’t have any TVs (to watch the game), but when there’s just so many people hanging out, having a good time, excited about being in Lawrence with the Jayhawks winning, we have seen a boost in sales, which is really great,” says Nate Morsches, co-owner of Massachusetts Street restaurant RPG. “Generally speaking, game nights are not usually great nights for us at RPG. But what I’ve noticed is with this sort of unexpected Jayhawk season going so well, there’s a lot more people downtown, which is really exciting for a lot of reasons.”

Sally Zogry, executive director for Downtown Lawrence Inc., says the influx of fans for home football games traditionally has boosted local business even when the team wasn’t winning. 

“Just to be fair, football is a big engine for Lawrence regardless,” she says. “The winning part of it is just … exponentially better. So people are buying Jayhawk gear … and they are eating out either before or after. … They are shopping, they are checking out the local stores. And it’s across Lawrence, but a lot of the focus is on downtown because we’re so close to the stadium.”

Some people love to be in the closest possible proximity to the game by working at the stadium, according to Kate Chinn, CEO of Express Employment, a Lawrence staffing agency that assists KU on game days finding employees to help with parking, sanitation and game-day events. Express Employment employees make $15 an hour, according to one of their ads. 

Chinn says she has seen about an 85% increase in game staffing this season. 

“It is a lot easier for me to find associates to work the hundreds of positions I have up there. Everybody wants to be a part of it when we’re successful,” Chinn says. “There’s just a new feeling and a new vibe around the whole area … It’s such a good feeling that we’ve not had for a long time related to football.”

In Zogry’s view, KU’s winning football season boosts more than business in Lawrence: it elevates energy. 

“For me what’s the most fun is when you see folks downtown on a game day and no matter what, whether it’s, let’s face it, basketball or football, just to see everybody in their red and blue and it’s all ages,” she says. “People are together and they’re having a blast — the buzz is amazing.” 

KU will face TCU at 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 8 in Lawrence. The game will be broadcast on FS1. The Jayhawks will then hit the road to face Oklahoma at 11 a.m. Oct. 15 in Norman.

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Chansi Long (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from July 2022 through August 2023. Read more of her work for the Times here.

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