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WNC Business

Athletics programs boost popularity and economy of the High Country

Jul 17, 2023 12:13PM ● By Randee Brown

College football is a significant driver for visitors to the High Country, according to Appalachian State University’s Director of Athletics Doug Gillin.

With an average of 33,566 people attending each home game at Kidd Brewer Stadium in 2022, and about 8,000 to 10,000 of those being App State students, the population of Boone literally explodes by more than 20,000 people every week during football season.

Gillin said people come from all over the region and state to attend these games. Many of them are alumni from cities including Greensboro, Charlotte, and Raleigh — Mecklenburg County being the county with the highest concentration of the University’s alumni. The University recruits student-athletes from places like GA, TN, VA, SC, and FL, and while there are visitors coming to games to support these students, he said the real correlation is the alumni in those areas coming to support their school.

When these out-of-town visitors travel several hours to attend games, they typically don’t turn around and drive right home when the game is over. People stay in Boone and neighboring towns, and according to a 2022 Economic Impact Study, bring $93 million annually to Watauga County (an average of $1.8 million every week) and $112 million to the state of NC, as well as support 770 area jobs. 

Gillan said he believes the successful athletics program contributes to students’ decision to enroll in the University. With thousands of students at each football game and hundreds to thousands attending other sports programs, he said University athletics provide students with opportunities in and around the campus.

“Students love to come and engage in these events,” Gillan said. “They love to support their teams and their school.”

The popularity of Appalachian State football has been rapidly rising over the last couple of years, and according to Deputy Athletics Director and CFO Jonathan Reeder, a lot of that is due to exposure on national television. 

“After we beat Texas A&M on the road, people were cheering in the streets here in Boone, and those videos went viral,” Reeder said. “ESPN College Gameday found us when they saw that on social media. We arguably have the largest football program in the state, and we’ve doubled our licensing over the last two years.”

Licensing is absolutely a big deal, according to Gillin. The success of their football program is encouraging growth in merchandising. “The atmosphere and environment are fun, the brand and its popularity has increased, and we are getting creative and entrepreneurial in marketing this brand,” he said.

Merchandise includes sweatshirts available on game days that match what the coaches are wearing, App State’s own barbecue sauce, and even their own official craft beer — Mountain Brew. Gillan said they are aggressively pursuing other outlets to add more points of sale in more places throughout the region for their variety of merchandise.

Other athletic programs also bring in hundreds to thousands of visitors per game, according to Reeder. Men’s basketball brings the second-largest crowds with an average of 2,376 people per game. Wrestling and baseball follow, with between 600 to 1,000 people attending each event. Approximately 70% of these attendees come from “off the mountain”, meaning there are a large number of visitors to the region shopping, dining, and staying overnight in the region because of a variety of sports events, more than just football.

While some student-athletes are recruited and some are interested in correlating academic programs like sports medicine, athletic training, and exercise science, student-athletes study in a variety of programs across the board. Some academic programming works in conjunction with athletic programs, including mathematics and analytics courses that work with sports data as well as communications courses that offer opportunities to participate in the media such as live broadcast experiences and live streaming events.

There has been a slow and steady growth of the student body year after year, and in the fall of 2022, Appalachian State University saw a 25% spike in applications. Gillan said the University’s athletic programs have helped to boost the University’s popularity and offer a point of engagement and pride for its students.

“It’s a chance for alumni and students to enjoy events that they are passionate about,” Gillan said. “It increases their level of engagement while they are here as well as when they leave. People remember these events fondly and continue to talk about them years down the road.”